Why Learn American Sign Language?
- Renée K. Walker The Old Schoolhouse Magazine
- 2011 5 May
Foreign language credit for high schoolers can be a nightmare for many homeschooling parents and students. Many public and private school students feel they are lucky when their state does not require it for high school graduation. Homeschoolers also often try to avoid it, but many find that colleges will not accept students without it. However, foreign language should not be overlooked as an essential part of a child’s curriculum. Like art and music instruction, foreign language study enhances intellectual growth in the student. It can also improve public speaking skills and self-confidence.
Foreign language instruction isn’t complicated if you shop around for the best curriculum to suit your needs. The biggest decision you have to make is the first one, though: Which language do you want your students to learn? While there are many, in the homeschool world most choose French, Spanish, German, or Latin. There is another choice that many overlook, but it has a great potential to do good in the community around you.
Why Study American Sign Language?
As the third most-used language in the United States, accepted as a true language by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989, and acceptable for study in most public and secondary schools for foreign language credit, American Sign Language (ASL) is an excellent choice for study. Some foreign language teachers question the validity of ASL as a true language, but linguistics experts do not question it, because it has its own system of grammar and syntax and is constantly changing as it grows within its culture and community of speakers. ASL is now accepted in most states for foreign language credit for high school graduation, and most colleges recognize it as well. Many colleges are even beginning to offer ASL instruction, with more and more offering interpreting programs in order to help address the certified interpreter shortage across the country.
High schoolers and families learning ASL have the potential of bringing light into a dim world for many Deaf people, especially DeafBlind people. You and your students’ lives can be enriched by the love and support of the Deaf community, which is indeed a culture of its own.
The study of ASL cannot be carried out successfully without a study of the culture and its history. Deaf and DeafBlind people are at a disadvantage in the hearing and sighted world. Communication issues prevent full access to many of life’s activities that most of society need and enjoy. If more people in the hearing world would take the time to learn ASL, a bridge could be built that would allow three cultural groups to meet, and new and exciting relationships could be developed. A Deaf person could easily ask a salesperson for help in the department store or order a meal at the restaurant or merely chat with a hearing person in the long line at the grocery store. A DeafBlind person could more easily find an assistant to help her write out bills or call a repairman to fix a broken window or simply have a visitor to share the afternoon with, dispelling the boredom for a while. Anything you can do in communicating with the Deaf or DeafBlind will be such a joy to a person who is sidelined from the hearing world due to communication issues.
If you find that you truly love American Sign Language and the Deaf culture, consider becoming a certified interpreter. There is a shortage of interpreters across the country. Trained interpreters are needed to help Deaf and DeafBlind people thoroughly understand what is happening in legal and medical situations. Their health or legal status could be in danger if they do not fully understand what is happening in those situations. Mastery of ASL is also a key to careers in Deaf Education and DeafBlind Studies. Learning ASL has the potential to help in so many ways, and no matter how big or small, the help is so very needed and appreciated.
If the question now is, “Okay, I want to teach ASL, but how can I go about teaching a language that is so different?” the help is out there, and finding it is easy. Many colleges and area agencies for the Deaf offer fairly inexpensive community classes, which are excellent choices. There are free options as well. The best free options are found on the Internet. The website http://www.Lifeprint.com/, created and operated by Dr. Bill Vicars, a Deaf ASL native and certified ASL teacher, is highly recommended by many Deaf agencies and by the Helen Keller National Center For Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults. You also can register with Lifeprint and submit lesson work and videotapes that are accepted for full credit in many places.
Numerous print resources are available for the study of American Sign Language and Deaf culture. A curriculum that gives a thorough study of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax is a series titled American Sign Language Green Books by Dennis Cokely and Charlotte Baker-Shenk. This series is published by Gallaudet University Press, a division of the first school for the Deaf and Deaf College, GallaudetUniversity. The Everything Sign Language Book: American Sign Language Made Easy by Irene Duke is a good choice for finding a lot of information in one place. The American Sign Language Phrase Book by Lou Fant, The American Sign Language Handshape Dictionary with optional flash card sets, and The Gallaudet Dictionary of American Sign Language are excellent resources, all of which can be purchased at http://www.Amazon.com/.
Find and use a chart of the American Manual Alphabet for fingerspelling. Twenty-six handshapes correspond to each letter of the alphabet. The Manual Alphabet is used in only a limited fashion in ASL, but fingerspelling and the handshapes play important roles. The Lifeprint website offers an alphabet chart, and most ASL resources will include one.
Regardless of the particular American Sign Language curriculum you choose, find a mentor—an interpreter, ASL teacher, fluent signer, or native speaker, who can make sure you are learning the signs properly and using them correctly. It is difficult to learn a sign using only a picture or even a video presentation. If possible, find a mentor in the Deaf community. He or she will help you not only to properly apply the skills learned in the curriculum, but also to enrich your vocabulary. You can form lasting bonds that not only will enrich the class but will enrich your lives as well.
A Few Considerations
Before you begin your study of American Sign Language, there are a few things that need to be considered. Many hearing individuals have the misconception that ASL is an easy or a simple language. That is probably derived from a misunderstanding of how the grammar and syntax work or from a direct translation that sounds similar to baby talk, but isn’t. ASL is a rich visual language that actually paints pictures with more detail than any verbal language does. The grammar and syntax are more like Japanese or Navajo than English. Learning any foreign language can be a challenging task, and learning American Sign Language is no exception. Consider this when choosing the language of study for your student.
Another aspect to consider is that some students who may have been overlooked for foreign language study due to learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, or auditory /visual processing disorders may be capable of learning and actually benefitting from acquisition of a visual language rather than a verbal one. Also, many hearing people think that any form of communication done with signs is sign language or ASL. However, many modes of communication use the hands to facilitate interaction and teaching of English to the Deaf. Signed Exact English (SEE) is one in which every English word is signed. It uses ASL signs and SEE signs, i.e., signs made to cover signs not found in ASL, because ASL doesn’t use the same syntax as English.
Pidgin Signed English, also known as Contact Language, is another tool that is used to bridge the gap between the hearing and the Deaf. It uses mostly American Sign Language signs, but in English word order. It is similar to ASL in that you don’t sign the forms of “be” or every single word.
All of these approaches are ways to communicate with the Deaf and may be beneficial if communication is the motivation or if used as a bridge to teach English skills to the Deaf. However, these approaches are not foreign languages, because they do not have a syntax or grammatical system of their own. They merely represent English words formed with the hands in a visual manner. For this reason, study of these approaches does not qualify for foreign language credit at the high school or college level.
When you choose a curriculum, ASL must be listed as the language of study. A listing of “sign language” is not enough to identify the subject as American Sign Language. Finally, ASL study must include a study of its history and culture of the Deaf community. In no other language have the creation and evolution of a language been so obviously impacted by the history and culture of its speakers as with ASL. Your study will enhance your understanding not only of the language but of the lives of members of the Deaf community as well. Their struggles and progress have united them uniquely as a community.
With all this good information from reputable sources, there are no excuses to not learn American Sign Language, a tremendous skill that can be acquired and enjoyed by you and your students. Do yourself a favor and after checking with your colleges of interest and/or your state requirements regarding foreign language credit, seriously consider American Sign Language for your students’ foreign language credit. The choice can bring joy to your family and the life of many Deaf and DeafBlind people.
Renée K. Walker is a Christian wife, mother of two sons who were homeschooled, and a certified educator of twenty-eight years. Renée, Principal of Wynfield Christian Academy, has an Ed.S. in curriculum and instruction. She is founder of DeafBlind Hope, a nonprofit organization that helps the DeafBlind learn to live an independent life. Renée, herself, became deaf as a child and has become progressively blind as an adult. Contact Renée at RWalkerWynfieldca.org, or read her blog www.Wynfield.WordPress.com.
Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse®Magazine, Winter 2010-11.
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