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One of the things I'm most proud of from my days as a university administrator was working to have American Sign Language accepted by the College of Liberal Arts' curriculum council as "a complete and natural language."  Because our proposal was accepted, students can now study ASL for second-language credit at the University of Minnesota.  Here's the story of how my colleagues, our students, and I worked to win that acceptance.

The Case for Recognizing American Sign Language

by Stephen Wilbers

First published by The College Board Review (fall 1987)

"We are remarkably ignorant about deafness . . . much more ignorant than an educated man would have been in 1886, or 1786. Ignorant and indifferent."
      – Oliver Sacks, "Mysteries of the Deaf," New York Review of Books (March 27, 1986)

Last November [of 1986] a prelingually deaf student, raised by deaf parents with deaf siblings, petitioned the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota for exemption from the Second Language Requirement. American Sign Language, he claimed, was his native language. English, which he had begun to study at age 7, was his second language.

His petition was approved.

Though born into a world of silence, he had been deprived of neither the ability nor the opportunity to use language at an early age. From birth, his parents had begun to communicate with him in sign.

Now, with a signing vocabulary of approximately 5,000-7,000 signs and a good command of English, he is bilingual. As such, the College agreed, he is not required to learn a third language.

Although approval of his petition was non-precedent-setting in terms of College policy, the decision reflected a new awareness regarding the nature of American Sign Language. Even before his case was heard, the College was reviewing a proposal to recognize ASL as a natural and complete language, comparable in complexity and expressiveness to oral and written languages.

That proposal has now been endorsed unanimously by three faculty committees. When approved on April 23 by the Council for Curriculum, Instruction, and Advising, it became College policy.

Although this doesn’t mean that the College will begin offering courses in ASL anytime soon, it does mean that students with proficiency in ASL may begin testing for language credit or exemption.

Academic recognition of ASL

When the College of Liberal Arts Scholastic Standing Committee began its investigation of American Sign Language last fall, we addressed three basic questions: 1) Is ASL a language separate and distinct from English with a grammar, morphology, and syntax of its own? 2) Would the study of ASL provide students with the learning experience of entering linguistically a culture different from their own? and 3) Would this field of study have the opportunities for research and exploration comparable to those offered by the study of oral and written languages?

To all three questions, the Committee answered yes.

In our assessment of American Sign Language, we found that many people think of ASL as a derivative or degenerate form of English. People also tend to assume that ASL is a concrete language, limited to communication of concrete information, and that signing is essentially a universal form of pantomime.

Contrary to these misconceptions, however, researches have found that ASL is a natural and complete language, comparable in complexity and expressiveness to oral and written languages. In fact, the evidence for this view is overwhelming. In his March, 1986, review, "Mysteries of the Deaf," Oliver Sacks provides a concise summary of what scholars are finding when he describes ASL as "capable of expressing any syntactic relation, and enabling its users to discuss any topic, concrete or abstract, as economically and effectively as speech."

Adding weight to the case for recognizing ASL as a natural language was a resolution endorsed unanimously by the faculty in our Department of Linguistics. That resolution states that the grammatical structure of ASL is distinct from that of English, that there is extensive evidence that the system of manual gestures used in ASL has a structure akin to that of the phonological system of an oral language, and that the study of ASL in all of its aspects (syntactic, phonological, historical, psychological, etc.) is considered a legitimate area of linguistic research.

It seems that most linguists now regard language as separable from speech. In the November 1986, volume of Natural Language and Linguistic Theory (which is devoted entirely to research on ASL), David Perlmutter challenges the "glottocentric" 20th-century American linguistic tradition that equates language and speech. Echoing William Dwight Whitney’s claim in 1875, Perlmutter argues that speech is "no nearer the soul" than sign, that in fact "speech is not essential to human language."

Contrary to the second common misconception, that American Sign Language is a simple, concrete language incapable of expressing abstract thought, researchers have found its expressive range to be virtually unlimited. To gain an appreciation of the complexity and expressiveness of ASL, one might take a quick glance at some of its structural properties.

Like any natural language, ASL possesses a variety of mechanisms used to elaborate and modulate its basic units of meaning. Two of these processes, compounding and inflection, are good illustrations of this.

The first mechanism, compounding, is a means of creating new lexical units from combining or expanding existing signs. An example cited by Ursula Bellugi and Edward S. Klima in "Structural Properties of American Sign Language" (in Deaf Children: Developmental Perspectives, 1978) is the sign unit commonly used for "streaker," a composite of the signs NUDE and ZOOM-OFF, which, one must agree, seems "an appropriate way of designating one who dashes away nude."

The second mechanism modulates meaning through inflectional devices. An example that Bellugi and Klima cite has to do with the single sign for GIVE, which can be varied to mean "giving different things at different times to unspecified recipients" or "giving to each member of a group regularly."

The point to bear in mind here is that languages differ widely in the degree to which they employ inflectional processes. While English is a more inflectional language than Chinese, whose individual lexical items are for the most part immutable, it is relatively limited compared with languages like Latin and Greek, which employ a relatively high number of inflectional processes.

In contrast to Chinese and English, and more like Latin and Greek, American Sign Language resorts regularly to a wide variety of inflectional devices. As Bellugi and Klima point out, ASL appears to be "an inflecting language, with inflection as a favored form of patterning." In this sense, one might even argue that ASL’s expressive range exceeds that of English.

The third common misconception relating to American Sign Language, that all signing is essentially pantomime, raises questions of whether sign language is universally understood and how ASL originated and evolved. People often ask if someone who knows American Sign Language can understand and converse with someone in British Sign Language or French Sign Language.

The answer, despite some mutually comprehensible signs, is no. Although all sign languages may have their origins in pantomime, the signs employed by American Sign Language and other sophisticated sign languages have evolved to the point that they have lost their transparency.

How, then, did American Sign Language develop in this country? And why are we so fortunate as to have a single language that is used by the deaf throughout the U.S. and Canada, when in so many other countries the deaf lack a common language and are divided by innumerable dialects and patois?

Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet

The answers to these questions have a great deal to do with the life and contribution of Laurent Clerc. A deaf genius, Clerc had worked to establish a national sign language in France before coming to America in 1816 at the age of 31 and creating the foundation of American Sign Language here. (Clerc purportedly learned English on his sea passage over.) In 1817 he and Thomas Gallaudet (after whom Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., is named) founded the American Asylum, the first American school for the deaf, in Hartford, Connecticut. For decades after that virtually all teachers of the deaf in America studied there, both learning ASL and in many cases contributing their own signs to a single evolving language.

The period from the time of Clerc’s arrival in this country until the 1870s has been called "the golden period" in deaf education in America. It was a time when great strides were made in understanding deafness, when American society first began to realize that deafness was not synonymous with mental debility, and when signing was encouraged and promoted not only as a legitimate form of communication but as an effective means of learning English. (A prelingually deaf child can become sufficiently fluent in ASL by the age of three to begin learning English through sign.)

Which brings us to the beginning of the great reversal in the history of deaf education in America – a tragic story, as Harlan Lane tells it so compellingly in When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf (1985), of well-intentioned educators depriving prelingually deaf children of their principal and most natural means of acquiring language at an early age. It brings us likewise to the disturbing question of why non-hearing people were often better educated and generally better integrated into American society in the 19th century than they have been [in the 20th] century. And it brings us finally to an understanding and appreciation of why American Sign Language is so important and integral to the deaf community today.

Although there had been an undercurrent of resistance to sign language all along (just as some elements in our society today continue to show intolerance to languages other than English), that resistance became decidedly more pronounced during the Victorian period in the latter 19th century, when forces of oppressiveness and conformism seemed to hold the day. In the 1870s influential educators and thinkers like Horace Mann, Alexander Graham Bell, and other great "oralists" and "demutizers" advocated the overthrow of the "old-fashioned" asylums and the establishment of "progressive" schools in which the deaf would be taught to speak.

Resistance to sign culminated in 1880 at the infamous International Congress of Educators of the Deaf, held in Milan, Italy. With the deaf teachers in attendance excluded from voting, it was decided to proscribe the use of sign language in the schools.

This decision, as interpreted by Lane and others, had tremendous impact on the social standing and status of the deaf in the Western world. One result was that teachers of the deaf who themselves were deaf lost their jobs. (Because they couldn’t hear, they couldn’t teach speech.) As Oliver Sacks points out in his review of Lane’s book, the proportion of deaf teachers dropped from 50% in 1850, to 25% in 1900, to 12% in 1960.

Another result, many have argued, was a dramatic deterioration in the overall education and literacy of the deaf. Because it takes a tremendous commitment in time and personal attention to teach the deaf to speak, the emphasis in the classroom shifts naturally from general education and critical thinking to speech.

One positive development in all this was the establishment of a deaf community and a definable deaf culture. In response to their perceived loss of standing in the academy and in society generally, the deaf retreated to enclaves where they became increasingly isolated from mainstream society and where a new sense of cohesiveness and commonality evolved. Today, researchers like Jack Gannon, Paul Higgins, and D.F. Moores define deaf culture not by whether the members of its community are hearing or non-hearing but by their allegiance to an identifiable set of values and behaviors. (Many writers in the field have taken to capitalizing the "D" in "Deaf" to distinguish people who are merely physiologically deaf from members of the "Deaf community.")

Central to the deaf community is a sometimes passionate commitment to American Sign Language. Many deaf people consider ASL an integral part of deaf culture, and they take it as an affront when manual codes of English like Signing Exact English (SEE), which seek a signed equivalent for every English word, are advocated as a substitute for their own natural language. Today, when the National Theatre of the Deaf performs in American Sign Language, it finds an eager and dedicated audience.

What began as a well-intentioned effort to integrate the deaf into mainstream society by teaching them to speak (what good was it to educate the deaf, the reformers asked, if they couldn’t communicate with the rest of us?), soon evolved into a "fiercely oralist" tradition where signing of any sort was not tolerated. As recently as the early 1970s, deaf children in our schools had their hands slapped if they were caught signing to each other or to their hearing friends. (The result, naturally, was that they went on signing – behind their teachers’ backs.)

In the 1960s, with the Civil Rights Movement and society’s growing awareness regarding cultural pluralism and its greater willingness to accommodate differences, things began to turn around. In 1965 William Stokoe published his Dictionary of American Sign Language, which stands as "the first attempt to make a phonemic-like analysis of American Sign Language." Stokoe’s work reflected a new commitment on the part of linguists to serious research on ASL.

ASL as a second language

Which brings us back to the question of recognizing ASL in the curriculum. The Committee felt strongly that the study of any natural language was a liberal pursuit, and consequently worthy of credit. In recommending that the College allow students to fulfill the Second Language Requirement with proficiency in ASL, the Committee was confident that students who did so would experience the rigors and pleasures of language study as richly as do any students who choose an oral or written language.

Our recognizing ASL, it seems to me, is significant in a number of ways. It isn’t that Minnesota is the first university to accept American Sign Language for credit at the undergraduate level. In the last couple years both the University of New Mexico and Augustana College in South Dakota recognized the language for credit at the undergraduate level. There are a number of institutions elsewhere that accept ASL for undergraduate credit, at least on an ad hoc basis, and the state legislatures in Texas and Maine have ruled that post-secondary institutions in those states may begin offering coursework in ASL if they choose. In addition, a number of states such as Michigan have passed bills allowing high schools to consider the teaching of ASL as an accredited foreign language.

But our position has drawn national attention because we are asking the same questions about the nature of ASL that so many American colleges and universities are now considering and debating. Susan Rose, an Associate Professor in Educational Psychology who was instrumental in developing the proposal, reports receiving inquiries regarding our approach and our progress from eight Big Ten universities and twelve major colleges. Similarly, Deb Guthmann in our Office for Students with Disabilities has received numerous queries from special support offices at other institutions.

Our recognition of ASL as a complete and natural language has significance for non-hearing and hearing students alike. In fact some of the measure’s proponents argue that the students who stand to gain the most are not the handful of deaf students at the University who might claim ASL as their first language and English as their second. (Of our 45,000 students on the Twin Cities campus, 24 are deaf and use interpreters.) On the contrary, they argue that those who might benefit most are the hearing students who through the study of ASL might enter linguistically a culture different from their own. Here our goal of expanding our students’ grasp of the varieties of human experience is the same one that we set for the study of any natural language.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate the significance of our new policy is to place it in the context of the College of Liberal Arts curriculum. When viewed in relation to other curricular innovations in recent years, like the new requirements in World Studies and in U.S. Cultural Pluralism, as well as the new proficiency-based Second Language Requirement, recognizing ASL as a natural language seems like part of a larger piece. As we continue to address the issues of a culturally pluralistic society, it seems appropriate and right that we take this opportunity to learn from the experience and wisdom of a group that has been shoved to the margins of American society.

[In 1987] Dr. Stephen Wilbers [was] Director of Student Academic Support Services in the College of Liberal Arts. He [taught] courses in American cultural diversity, contemporary authors, and creative writing.


The following questions regarding the nature and origins of American Sign Language were frequently encountered by the author as he began investigating the language a year ago.

1. Is sign language more than gesturing and pantomime?

Yes. While all sign languages may have their origins in gesturing and pantomime, the signs employed by American Sign Language and other sophisticated sign languages have evolved to the point that they have lost their transparency.

2. If a person can understand and use one sign language, can that person understand all sign languages?

No. American Sign Language is a distinct language that is not universally used and understood by all deaf people. Just as hearing people in different countries speak different languages, so deaf people around the world sign different languages. Due to historical circumstance, ASL is more like French Sign Language than British Sign Language.

3. Is American Sign Language limited to simple, concrete ideas?

No. ASL is comparable in complexity and expressiveness to oral and written languages. Researchers have found its expressive range to be virtually unlimited. Like any natural language, ASL possesses a variety of mechanisms, like compounding and inflection, used to elaborate and modulate its basic units of meaning. ASL has been described as "capable of expressing any syntactic relation, and enabling its users to discuss any topic, concrete or abstract, as economically and effectively as speech."

4. Is American Sign Language a manual form of English?

No. ASL is a natural and complete language, with a grammatical structure distinct from that of English. Like other minority languages, it is influenced by the predominant language of society, but it has its own grammar, syntax, and morphology.

5. How did American Sign Language get started?

ASL is both an "invented" language and an evolving language. It is "invented" in the sense that various signs and methods of expression were systematically organized and consolidated into a single language by Laurent Clerc, who had worked to establish a national sign language in France before coming to the U.S. in 1816. For decades after Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet founded the American Asylum, virtually all teachers of the deaf in America studied ASL there, both learning the language and in many cases contributing their own signs to it. ASL continues to evolve today. As in other languages, new ASL words are coined constantly in response to cultural and technological changes.

6. What is the difference between American Sign Language and Signing Exact English?

ASL is a complete language, distinct from English. SEE (Signing Exact English) and other manual codes of English seek a signed equivalent for every English word and follow English word order. Many native users of ASL find SEE artificial, slow, and cumbersome. PSE (Pidgin Signed English) combines the conceptual components of ASL with English word order.

7. Are the simultaneous interpreters we see on television broadcasts and at public speeches and lectures using American Sign Language?

No. They are using PSE, with the amount of finger spelling dependent on the technicality of the subject and the number of proper names. The general rule is: the more technical the subject, the higher the incidence of finger spelling. Because PSE follows English word order, it is easier and quicker to translate from English to PSE than from English to ASL. Among members of the deaf community, however, ASL is generally preferred over PSE or SEE, and it tends to be used in situations not requiring translation.

8. What has been the greatest hurdle to academic acceptance of ASL?

The greatest hurdle has been the question of whether the study of ASL leads hearing students to experience a culture that is unique and distinct from their own, which is generally one of the goals of foreign or second language requirements. Generally, academics have shown themselves more willing to accept the argument that ASL represents a natural and complete language than to accept the existence of a definable deaf culture.

9. Is there a deaf culture?

If one defines culture as a pattern of values and beliefs used by a community of people to perceive and interpret their individual and collective experience, both past and present, then there is unquestionably a deaf culture. Deaf people have their own values, allegiances, patterns of daily living, politics, folklore, and world view. What is funny to a hearing person, for example, is not necessarily funny to a non-hearing person, and vice versa. If culture is defined more narrowly in terms of the Western classical tradition or posited on the existence of a written literature, then it becomes more difficult to argue that deaf culture is separate and distinct from mainstream American society.

10. How many deaf people are there in the United States?

There are approximately 20 million people in the U.S. with some degree of deafness. Depending on the decibel loss, they are generally classified as mildly deaf (30-50 decibel loss), moderately deaf (50-70 decibel loss), severely deaf (70-90 decibel loss), or profoundly deaf (more than 90 decibel loss). One estimate is that there are 250,000 profoundly deaf people in this country.

11. How many of these people use American Sign Language?

It isn’t known exactly how many of these people use ASL, though ASL is the single most important language in the deaf community. Some deaf children are taught English (either directly or through the use of sign language), speech (the oral deaf), SEE, PSE, or "total communication" (sign, lip reading, and speech) from an early age; others first learn ASL and later take up English as a second language. Many hearing children of deaf parents learn ASL to communicate with their parents, and many hearing parents of deaf children attempt to do likewise. With the current emphasis on mainstreaming in our schools, fewer deaf students are graduating from high school with a sound knowledge of pure ASL.

12. Why is American Sign Language so important to people in the deaf community?

Around the end of the 19th century, the emphasis in deaf education shifted from recognizing sign language as a natural means of expression to insisting that the deaf be taught to lip read and speak so that they could communicate with hearing people who didn’t sign. This oralist tradition, which prevailed until recently, led to the suppression of sign language among deaf children and what many perceived as a loss in standing on the part of deaf people in American society. As a result, many deaf people are fiercely committed to ASL as a symbol of their culture, and they take it as an affront when manual codes like SEE are advocated as a substitute for their own natural language.

13. Is ASL used in artistic creation?

Yes. Due to its conceptual nature and expressive range, ASL is particularly suited to artistic creation. Poets are composing poetry in ASL, story-tellers are telling stories in ASL, and playwrights are creating plays in ASL. The National Theatre of the Deaf performs in ASL, partly because of ASL’s predominance in the deaf community and partly because of its versatility and easy flow. With the advent of the audio/visual cassette, it is now an easy matter to record, distribute, and store works of art in ASL.


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