American Sign Language (ASL) (2024)

American Sign Language (ASL), visual-gestural language used by most of the deaf community in the United States and Canada. ASL is a natural language with a structure quite different from spoken English. It is not a manual-gestural representation of spoken English, nor is it pantomime. Instead, ASL is a full language, with all of the properties of spoken natural languages, but one that has developed independently of and differently from English. The role of ASL in the education of deaf students has been characterized by conflict and controversy. This situation has existed throughout the history of deaf education in the United States.

Brief history of ASL in deaf education

The formal education of deaf students in the United States began in 1817 with the establishment of what is now the American School for the Deaf, in Hartford, Connecticut. The mode of instruction was Signed English, which was an attempt to represent the structure and syntax of English on the hands in a visual modality. It was created with the hope that if deaf students had access to the structure of English, then they could acquire it. The acquisition of the conversational form of English would serve as the basis for later academic achievement (e.g., reading and writing English). This early form of Signed English relied on Signed French because early American instruction was borrowed from the French model. Thus, the first language of instruction in America was modified Signed French with some invented signs to represent parts of English—for example, gender, articles, and prepositions.

By 1835, the dominant language of instruction in schools for the deaf was ASL. Signed English was no longer popular because it was not the natural language of the deaf themselves. Moreover, there was little emphasis on English articulation or speech production. These changes led to an increase in the number of deaf teachers and deaf faculty, and by 1858 more than 40% of teachers of deaf students were deaf themselves.

That situation was soon to change. The next 100 years would be dominated by the oral methods of language instruction in which deaf students were taught to read lips and to speak. Oral methods first took hold in Europe, although the Americans would later discover that English words, whose sounds are mostly made toward the rear of the mouth, were far less visible to speech readers than those of European languages (e.g., German), many of whose sounds are made near the front of the mouth.

Further, there was a growing belief that sign language (i.e., ASL) would interfere with the development of oral skills. A notable advocate of the oral approach was Alexander Graham Bell. Bell believed that sign language would interfere with oral skills and deaf people’s ability to take part in mainstream, hearing society. Proponents of oralism believed that sign language was ideographic and thus less abstract than spoken English and, as such, that using sign language would limit the intellectual development of deaf students.

As the emphasis on oral methods grew, it largely eliminated deaf people from becoming teachers because of the skills necessary to instruct speech and lip reading. Thus, the influence and input of deaf people in deaf education were reduced. Schools for the deaf began to accept children as young as 4 years old and parents became more involved in their child’s education. The importance of early education and parent involvement favored an oral approach; statistically, less than 10% of parents of deaf children are deaf themselves and, with an oral approach, most parents could immediately become involved in their child’s education, rather than having to learn a new language (i.e., ASL).

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The dominance of the oral approach lasted until the 1960s. During that era, oral instruction was preferred for all deaf children, and many residential schools went so far as attempting to ban the use of ASL both inside and outside of the classroom.

The 1960s ushered in an era of change in deaf education and brought an end to the domination of the oral approach. The oral approach had not produced the results that many had anticipated; the average reading level of a deaf adult was around the third or fourth grade, and 30% of deaf students were illiterate. Moreover, the deaf population began to become politically active and advocate for their rights and for input into the deaf education system. Another factor that had a huge influence on deaf education was the publication of William Stokoe’s Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf, which provided compelling evidence that ASL was a genuine language, not an imperfect effort by deaf individuals to imitate English. Finally, more recent research suggested that there is a relationship between ASL competence and English literacy, which contradicts the earlier assumption that ASL would interfere with English language competency.

Current status of ASL

The goal of educators throughout the history of deaf education in the United States has always been for deaf students to acquire fluency in reading and writing English. The best way to achieve this, however, has spawned numerous methods and approaches that are rooted in underlying philosophical and often polarized differences. A conflict persists in deaf education between two philosophies: the clinical model and the cultural model. In the clinical model, deafness is characterized as a biological disability. Thus, educational approaches and goals focus on compensating for, and overcoming, hearing loss to foster skills in speaking, reading, and writing English. Educational methods used to accomplish these skills include amplification to increase auditory access to spoken English, speech reading, and various coded signing systems that attempt to represent spoken English on the hands in a visual modality.

The cultural model represents deafness as a difference and not a disability. It acknowledges that deaf people have a unique identity, of which ASL is a central component, and that deaf people have a history and a social organization. Indeed, from this viewpoint, deafness is a cultural difference rather than a biological phenomenon. The cultural model empowers deaf people with the authority to make decisions that affect the lives of deaf children and adults. Educational methods based on this model embrace the use of ASL as the language of instruction.

In the early 21st century the future of ASL in the education of deaf students was unclear. Evidence supporting the use of ASL as the language of instruction could be found in the bilingual-bicultural approach to deaf education, which reflects the cultural model of deafness. The bilingual-bicultural model provides deaf students with complete access to a natural language that they can acquire as hearing children do a spoken language.

There are two methods for using ASL to teach English in the bilingual-bicultural model. In the first, deaf students acquire ASL and then learn English via ASL when they are cognitively ready to benefit from formal instruction. In the second, students are exposed simultaneously to ASL and English from the beginning, though the languages are clearly separated by context or by speaker. The bilingual-bicultural approach, however, was threatened by laws that prioritized the mainstreaming of deaf students in local schools rather than residential schools for the deaf as in the past; thus, students had less access to models fluent in ASL and less exposure to deaf culture. In addition, advances were made in the technology of restoring hearing ability, such as cochlear implants, and, though they were controversial, they had a particular appeal to hearing parents of deaf children. The development of such technology and the placement of many deaf children in regular schools promised to pose challenges regarding the use of ASL as an instructional approach.

Erik Drasgow
American Sign Language (ASL) (2024)
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