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American Sign Language As A Language Education Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 3150 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In this chapter, a review of the literature that serves as a foundation for this study is presented. The literature review addresses the theoretical basis of considering American Sign Language as a language, issues in the administration of modern/foreign language programs that parallel the concerns of sign language program administrators, national language program standards, the history of the teaching and administration of post-secondary sign language programs including information on the academic acceptance of sign language in higher education. Concluding this chapter will be a discussion on the state of the literature.

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American Sign Language as a Language

The discussion of ASL and its membership as a language did not occur before William Stokoe, of Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., breached the topic in 1955. Many educators believed sign language was a system of pantomime or broken English. This belief was also held by the deaf individuals themselves (Miller, 2008). Stokoe believed that ASL was indeed a naturally occurring and distinct language ustilized by deaf people and could be studied as a language (Stokoe, 1960 ). Stokoe’s research spanned from 1955 to 1965 and covered signing as a linguistic system and signs as a part of the system. The first American Sign Language Dictionary was published in 1965 at the conclusion of the first part of Stokoe’s research. The focus part of Stokeoe’s continued research focused on the syntax of the language and its importance to teaching English to deaf children. Dr Stokoe asserts he was in constant contact with the Center for Applied Linguistics, the Georgetown University School of Language and Linguistics, and the Washington Linguistics Club, laying the foundation and belief that parts of sign language grammar paralleled parts of the languages they were studying (Stokoe, 1990). Stokoe believed signs could be taken apart and analyzed into parts allowing researchers and linguists to study how the language works, how they evolved, and how they could be taught.

The work of William Stokoe was not widely accepted among all professionals. Since the 1970s many have argued against the language classification for ASL and especially that of foreign language (Stokoe, 1960; Wilcox, 1990). ASL was studied and analyzed without further evidence that it was a full blown language. Questions have been raised regarding ASL’s legitimacy as a foreign language. The following are a set of questions that are common among critics of ASL. (a) Isn’t ASL indigenous to the United States and therefore not foreign? (b) Isn’t ASL a derivative of English which would disqualify it as a separate language? (c) Is ASL naturally occurring and evolving? (d) If ASL is not written, how can it have a culture? (e) Is there a body of literature to support ASL and its culture? All of these questions have been asked over the decades and have been the major road blocks to ASL being recognized as a language.

William Stokoe effectively answered these questions over several years which have been supported by several other scholars in linguistics and culture. In response to the questions regarding whether or not ASL is a language, Stokoe explains in detail with books and dictionaries the morphology, phonology, syntax, as well as semantics and pragmatics and how it differs from that of English or other spoken languages (Stokoe, 1960). Wilcox & Peyton (1999) state, “ASL is a fully developed language, one of hundreds of naturally occurring sign languages in the world”. Conover (1997) states that one is not likely to find much opposition to ASL as a language form linguists, however the most resistance comes from colleges and universities who do not believe ASL should be taught as a foreign language (Miller, 2008). There is a great deal of research, according to Wilcox & Peyton (1999), which demonstrates that ASL grammar is radically different from English grammar; it contains structures and processes which English lacks (Wilcox, 1999; Vigoda, 1993). When comparing American Sign Language to other accepted foreign languages one must take in to account that Navajo and several other Native American languages are widely accepted as foreign languages, being even more indigenous to America than ASL. A language need not be foreign to be considered a foreign language (Wilcox, S. & Wilcox, P., 1991).

In response to the literature question, researchers have found a vast body of literature among deaf people (Cooper et al, 2008; Armstrong, 1988). The literature is not in a written traditional form but, like Native American languages, through story telling passed from generation to generation. With modern technology these very old stories can now be viewed on the internet and on DVD’s. The widespread use of storytelling in deaf culture has become more and more available to the general population.

ASL continues to be a topic of research at numerous universities and has evolved to be the lead topic in language acquisition, eurolinguistics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, anthropology, cognitive studies, teaching methods, and assessment of sign language skills (Jacobowitz, 2005; Miller, 2008). Empirical research on language in the human brain has provided support for Stokoe’s initial findings. Studies focused on neural processing of signed language found the same areas of the brain are used to process spoken language (Hickok et al., 2001). The New York Times in 1992 argues ASL is a language because it uses the same elements of spoken language and is organized like any other spoken language (Hickok et al., 2001; Stokoe, 2005).

Two linguists from the Salk Institute, Klima and Bellugi (1979) began studying sign language in the 1960s, they wondered whether ASL was an language as other linguists understand that concept. The findings of Klima and Bellugi (1979) supported the linguistic components of ASL, which they called “a complexly structured language with a highly articulated grammar, a language that exhibits many of the fundamental properties linguists have posited for all languages” (p. 4). Definitions of ASL continued in 1980 with Baker and Cokely indicating ASL is a “visual-gestural language created by deaf people” (p. 47). They defined the language as a system of relatively arbitrary symbols and grammatical signals that change across time and that members of a community share and use for several purposes: to interact with each other, to communicate their ideas, emotions, intentions, and to transmit their culture from generation to generation (p. 31).

Issues of Administration

Administrators of LOTE programs often face issues that are not unique to their program. Instructors of American Sign Language often rely on the philosophies, policies, theories, and strategies used in other programs that teach LOTE. Concerns faced by ASL administrators often face similar concerns of LOTE Administrators.

A study conducted by the MLA in 1989 showed that language requirements varied depending on the type of language program, and type of institution. “More than half of the institutions surveyed (58.5% public, 41.5% private) viewed language study as essential to a well-rounded education” (Cooper, 1997, p.29; Huber, 1989). Additionally the MLA study indicated that 87% of the institutions housed all languages within one divisional unit. Of those institutions the languages were housed with other non-language courses and in departments outside of the language emphasis such as philosophy and Humanities. Essentially, the study finds that administrative decisions regarding language instruction was made by departments and administrators with no experience in LOTE. Huber (1989) suggests foreign language instruction may take a secondary role to English when both are offered in the same department. Over half (56%) that offered a degree in English did not offer a degree in LOTE, and those that offered a MA in English only offered a BA in some of the other languages. Huber (1989) also suggests that language programs may be housed in non-language departments because of resource restraints or low student interest.

A study of 1000 foreign language department chairs done by Cardenas (1988) indicated over seventy percent (73.7%) of the respondents found one of the most frustrating pieces of administration of the language departments was the lack of momentum with their own research and teaching. Much of the frustration was motivating unproductive faculty (60.2%), faculty evaluations (54.3%), managing the budget (51.7%), and recruiting part-time faculty (48.3%).

National Language Program Standards

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) states as part of their philosophy that “Language and communication are at the heart of the human experience” (ACTFL).  The organization goes on to say they “envision a future in which ALL students will develop and maintain proficiency in English and at least one other language, modern or classical” (ACTFL). In essence these statements open the door for all forms of communication that meet the standards of language learning.

The Standards for Foreign Language Learning; Preparing for the 21st Century has been a mainstay for guidance of foreign language instruction. These standards, according to the ACTFL, are called the 5 C’s (Communicate, Culture, Connect, Compare, and Community). According to Lear and Abbott (2008) “To comply with these standards, the successful student will use language to communicate for real purposes, understand multicultural and global issues, connect with other disciplines and acquire new knowledge, make comparisons with their own language and culture, and participate in multilingual communities”(Lear & Abbott, 2008, p. 77) (Table 1). A language program should attempt as much of the 5 C’s as possible, however little discussion is found to what extent each must be accomplished “(Lear & Abbott, 2008). It is widely accepted that goal 5 is difficult to accomplish in a closed classroom setting.

In a position paper by the ACTFL in 2011 ASL was recognized as a LOTE when it stated, “Communication for a classical language refers to an emphasis on reading ability and for American Sign Language (ASL) to signed communicative ability” (ACTFL Position Statements, 2011).

The publication of Standards became “known as the ―genericâ€- version of standards in that it addressed issues and delineated standards common to all second-language learning yet contained examples in many languages” (Phillips, J. & Abbott, M. 2011, p.1). From 2005 to 2010, the American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA) and the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers (NCIEC) collaborated on

Table 1.

A complete listing of ACTFL’s Standards for Foreign Language Learning.


Communicate in Language Other Than English

Standard 1.1: Students engage in conversations, provide and obtain information,

express feelings and emotions, and exchange opinions.

Standard 1.2: Students understand and interpret written and spoken language on a

variety of topics.

Standard 1.3: Students present information, concepts, and ideas to an audience of

listeners or readers on a variety of topics.


Gain Knowledge and Understanding of Other Cultures

Standard 2.1: Students demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the

practices and perspectives of the culture studied.

Standard 2.2: Students demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the

products and perspectives of the culture studied.


Connect with Other Disciplines and Acquire Information

Standard 3.1: Students reinforce and further their knowledge of other disciplines

through the foreign language.

Standard 3.2: Students acquire information and recognize the distinctive viewpoints

that are only available through the foreign language and its cultures.


Develop Insight in the Nature of Language and Culture

Standard 4.1: Students demonstrate understanding of the nature of language through

comparisons of the language studied and their own.

Standard 4.2: Students demonstrate understanding of the concept of culture through

comparisons of the cultures studied and their own.


Participate in Multilingual Communities at Home and Around the World

Standard 5.1: Students use the language both within and beyond the school setting.

Standard 5.2: Students show evidence of becoming life-long learners by using the language for personal enjoyment and enrichment.

the development of standards for ASL instruction as a guide to teachers and administrators of sign language programs. These standards utilized the ACTFL’s Standards for Foreign Language Learning framework. The standards use the same 5 C’s of language instruction and are printed as part of the 2012 ACTFL Standards for Foreign Language Learning (Phillips, J. & Abbott, M. 2011).

Originally the standards were written with nine languages being considered: Chinese, Classical Languages, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, and

Spanish “the Standards have expanded to include languages other than the original nine. Standards for learning Arabic are now in the printed version; they have also been developed for Hindi, Swahili, Korean and American Sign Language” (Phillips, J. & Abbott, M. 2011).

History of Academic Acceptance of Sign Language

Sign Language appeared as a language for the first time beginning in the mid-1960s when Stoke, Casterline, and Croneberg published the Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles. This event gave linguistic recognition to ASL for the first time in its history, although very few people recognized the event as significant (Wilcox, S. & Wilcox, P, 1991). Depaul University has been recognized as the first university in the United States to offer sign language classes in 1965 (Shroyer & Holmes, 1980).

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The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) built a Communication Skills Program in 1967 in an attempt to spur language acquisition in schools, universities and programs who serve deaf people by offering sign language classes (Newel, 1995a). During the same period of time several sign systems were invented to assist in teaching deaf children English. The most popular systems used were Seeing Essential English (SEE I), Linguistics of Visual English (LOVE), and Signing Exact English (SEE II) (Cooper, 1997). The purpose of these sign systems was to simplify the process of teaching English to deaf children; however, over time they became recognized as sign systems and were taught as varying sign language classed in colleges and universities (Cooper 1997).

Other events in the 1960s and 1970s contributed to the increased availability of sign language classes in schools and higher education. Research and publications by Stoke (1966 – 1990), Klimba and Bellugi (1979), Wilbur (1979, 1987), and Cokely and Baker (1980) added support for the general acceptance of ASL as a language (Cooper, 1997).

Legislation also played an important role for sign language in the schools as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and PL94-142 of 1975 expanded the requirement to provide Sign Language Interpreters in the classroom as a service for deaf students. The caused an increased need for skilled hearing individuals to learn sign language so that interpreters may be available in the schools when required. Interpreter training programs gained federal funding in an effort to relieve the pressure for skilled interpreters (Newell, 1995b).

Implications for Future Research

Additional and ongoing research regarding individual views regarding sign language is needed including tracking the growth of programs nationally would be beneficial. Future research in development of ASL programs regionally is essential particularly as it partners with LOTE programs. Current data on institutions that recognize ASL as a LOTE and houses it with other languages is important. Particular interest regarding institutions that discontinue their programs and the reasons behind it would be valued.

This study did not address certifications of teachers currently working as ASL instructors however data regarding the fact is needed to assess future needs in training instructors in the language. The correlation of signing and non-signing administrators was not examined. Neither was the ethnicity or gender discussed although this would be interesting to research for further influence among minorities and genders.

Evaluation of the State of the Literature

Regarding current research the surveys administered should be shorter in length to increase the participation rate of responders. Additional information regarding majors, minors, and other university requirements would be helpful including where the sign language program is housed. For example, knowing if the program is a stand-alone program, part of another language department, or listed for credit as an elective would assist institutions in making decisions on language administration.

The research to this point in history has focused mainly on which schools accept ASL for credit and the overarching reasons why some may not accept it. Not a lot of research has been done to discuss the programs reasons for acceptance or the process of approval if they were able to secure approval.

This research attempts to answer the question many researchers failed to answer, which is a more detailed understanding of personal views of ASL by administrators of languages other than English. Past research has been able to list categories of rejection or acceptance and attempted to list which institutions have been able to recognize sign language for credit on par with other languages at the institutions. The question left unanswered are at what level does ASL receive the most support or resistance in the process of gaining recognition as a language at the institutions. This is important for future organizations who seek approval at various colleges and universities. Additionally, the overall acceptance of sign language in various countries would also be valued to find the international point of view of sign language as it is compared to the United States.


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