Throughout my life many people have asked me why Deaf cherish ASL as much as they do. In light of recent events concerning Mayor Bloomberg’s interpreter Lydia Callis and the Chelsea Handler fiasco, I have decided to write a list of 10 reasons why Deaf cherish ASL.
Sign language is visual, expressive, and natural to Deaf. For many Deaf, ASL is their “first” or primary language despite the age they began learning it. In my linguistics class on Semester at Sea last semester I learned that in the 1970s Nicaraguan Deaf students who had only been taught to ‘speak’ Spanish were found to sign while on the bus, on the playground, and when hanging out with their friends. Despite having never been taught any sign language, they formed a language with complex syntax that is now recognized as Nicaraguan Sign Language. (See the complete study here.) Sign language makes sense and is easy to express for Deaf…no wonder they love it!
Deaf have been oppressed throughout history. This oppression has existed since the days of Aristotle when Deaf were labeled “deaf and dumb” and has continued to the current day when many Deaf around the world are expected to do no more in life than beg. Sign language has been viewed as gestures rather than pure communication because it belonged to people that were viewed as sub-human or disabled. Deaf protect ASL because it is something that has survived oppression.
Even in recent history, Deaf have been deprived of their language. Alexander Graham Bell and other oralists promoted anti-sign language education that has continued to this day in many parts of the nation. In the first half of the 20th century, there were instances of Deaf children’s hands tied to prevent their natural language or tongues cut to ‘help’ them speak. However, Deaf clung to their language and continued to teach it among themselves despite the threat of punishment. Deprivation made ASL even more precious in the eyes of the Deaf community.
Sign language is a symbol of the Deaf community’s tenacity under oppression. ASL was the language of the Deaf rights movement that occurred in 1988. To attempt to condense an incredible complex and wonderful event into a few sentences would be impossible, so please read about the “Deaf President Now” movement here. The point is, ASL is now an ensign to the world that Deaf have fought for their rights. How I wish Alexander Graham Bell, Hitler, and other oppressors could see how their efforts to squelch sign language only made it a symbol of Deaf strength!
Many times oppression has come through misunderstanding on the part of the oppressors. Hearing have viewed the Deaf as disabled rather than a cultural minority and as a result, put many in asylums thinking they were mentally incapable of learning or have forced them to speak. Sign language has been referred to as “monkey language”, “crude gesture”, and worse when in fact it is a complex and complete language. Sadly, this misunderstanding continues today in it’s various forms. When I was in Ghana, the teachers were shocked to learn that Deaf study in universities, that my work boss at BYU was Deaf, and that Deaf are capable of anything and everything. Read more of my experience in Ghana here.
Sadly, despite the massive progress America has made to become more accepting of ASL since the “Deaf President Now” movement, adding ASL classes in universities, and more exposure in the media such as Children of a Lesser God or Switched at Birth, ASL is still threatened. More and more children are put into mainstream schools rather than Deaf residential schools. Residential schools have always been a place where Deaf pass on their language and culture in times past. Now Deaf children find themselves in schools that have very few (if any) other Deaf students and an emphasis in spoken English. In addition to mainstreaming students, very few children with cochlear implants are taught to sign. Those who do sign are even more protective of their language.
Let’s step back to when I said sign language is natural. Most of you may be surprised to learn that sign language is not universal. Most countries have at least one unique sign language and America even has several dialects depending on the region. Some argue sign language is not the Deaf people’s natural sign language. To these individuals, I pose the following question: If sign is not natural, why is it that there are a myriad of sign languages across the world that are unique to each other, all having morphed through time? Sign languages are not crutches for Deaf to lean on or even things that are “fun” to learn, they are complex languages each with a unique history, syntax, and grammar. Each sign language around the world is a source of pride for the various Deaf communities of the world as I have personally seen throughout my travels.
If you were to mention Deaf education to me, I would start shaking my head before replying. There are so many opinions on how Deaf should be educated and even more methods that have been tried and failed in history. Most of these methods have not included ASL, another reason why Deaf cherish their language. However I am going to present one method that I firmly believe will provide a firm education for all Deaf children. The Bilingual/Bicultural method starts by teaching ASL and Deaf culture to all young students to give them a firm primary language in which they can learn science, math, history at the same rate as hearing children. Then, rather than investing absurd amounts of time in speech therapy, they teach children written English as a second language. Some claim that Deaf children will not learn English well this way. I counter with this thought: imagine learning Hungarian with a teacher that does not speak one ounce of English and not being able to hear your teacher…think about how impossible that would be. Now imagine learning written Hungarian with a teacher who knew English and Hungarian. You would be able to quickly master written Hungarian because you can learn directly from a teacher, right? It’s the same with the Bilingual/Bicultural method…give students an ASL foundation and then teach them a new language in their own language.
Anyone who has seen Deaf storytelling or Deaf poetry can recognize the unique aspects of signed languages that are denied to other languages. The use of space, movement, shape, rhythm, expression, body, and visual indicators creates a poetry more musical than most would think. One of my favorite courses of my college career was a Deaf Literature class taught by Julie Eldredge at Brigham Young University. As we studied poetry, she mentioned that one hearing poet, after watching a moving Deaf poem, said he wished he had the freedom to leave the page like Deaf have with ASL poetry. Many hearing people who watch ASL connect with it in a way unexpected. It is a beautiful language that breaks so many verbal language boundaries.
10. Pure Communication
There is nothing better than showing up at a Deaf convention, entering a Deaf classroom, or walking in the doors of my Deaf Mormon church and seeing communication at its finest. Very few times do Deaf get to partake of pure communication: understanding everything and being able to express anything. For many Deaf, days consist of lip-reading, writing notes, trying to gesture with hearing compatriots, so complete communication is not easily accessible for most. ASL provides a world of complete understanding, complete expression.
So why do Deaf cherish ASL? It’s everything. Our language symbolizes us, frees us, empowers us. So when people like Chelsea Handler don’t treat ASL with decency, we get a little touchy. End of story.
And now you understand.
Any more questions? Comment below and I will answer!