ASL as a Foreign Language Fact Sheet


Sherman Wilcox, Ph.D
Department of Linguistics
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131 

Interest in American Sign Language (ASL) as a foreign language has become, in the words of Gary Olsen, former Executive Director of the National Association of the Deaf, "an American ground swell." Many colleges and universities are beginning to recognize the study of ASL and Deaf culture as legitimate academic pursuits and are starting to accept ASL in fulfillment of their foreign language entrance and exit requirements. In several states, ASL is mandated by law as acceptable in fulfillment of high school foreign language graduation requirements.

More and more colleges and universities are accepting ASL in fulfillment of foreign language requirements. The University of California system (all campuses) will soon accept ASL in fulfillment of foreign language entrance and graduation requirements. Harvard and Yale are among some of the schools which are investigating similar action. Recently, we have witnessed tremendous activity by state legislatures to support the teaching and acceptance of ASL as a foreign language. Many states now recognize ASL as a foreign language for the purpose of meeting high school graduation requirements.

In 1988, the parliament of the European Community, noting that there are 500,000 profoundly deaf people in member states whose first language is their national signed language and not the dominant spoken language of their country, recognized as legitimate languages the indigenous signed languages of the twelve member states. Recognition and acceptance of signed languages is clearly an idea whose time has come on an international scale.

Many questions come to mind when the topic of ASL as a foreign language is brought up. People often ask if it is appropriate to call ASL a foreign language. Is it really a language? Isn't it a derivative of English, on the order of Black English? Is ASL "foreign"? -- after all, it is used in the United States. Is there a body of literature associated with ASL? Others may note that foreign language courses teach students about the culture of the group of people who use the language. They may wonder if there is a full and distinct culture associated with users of ASL.

The answers to all of these questions support the recognition of ASL as a foreign language. Because of its unique modality -- visual/gestural rather than aural/oral -- many people wrongly assume that ASL is fundamentally different than spoken languages. ASL is a fully developed human language, one of the hundreds of naturally occurring signed languages of the world. It is not a derivative of English. It is not a "simplified" language -- it contains structures and processes which English lacks (such as ASL's rich verbal aspect and classifier systems). There is abundant linguistic research on ASL demonstrating that the grammar of ASL is radically different from English -- surely as different as any of the more traditional foreign languages taught in school. Comprehensive sources of information on the linguistics of ASL are Linguistics of American Sign Language by Clayton Valli and Ceil Lucas (1993, Gallaudet University Press), American Sign Language: Linguistic and Applied Dimensions by Ronnie Wilbur (1987, Little Brown and Co.) and The Signs of Language by Edward Klima and Ursula Bellugi (1979, Harvard University Press).

The question of whether ASL is "foreign" depends on what we mean by foreign. ASL is not universal; it is indigenous to the United States and parts of Canada. This should not, however, exclude it from study as a foreign language. The question also arises with other languages indigenous to North America. At the University of New Mexico, for example, Navajo is taught and accepted in fulfillment of the foreign language requirement, yet it is not used in a foreign country. For reasons such as this, many language scholars now speak of second language, rather than foreign language, requirements.

Some people may suggest that ASL lacks an international scope. In the hearing world of international world affairs this is true. It is also true for many of the spoken languages traditionally accepted to fulfill foreign language requirements. On the other hand, in the Deaf world, ASL is quite an important language on the international scene; for example, ASL is often an official language of international conferences.

There is a rich body of ASL literature by and about Deaf people, as well as texts on ASL in both written and oral modes. The folk heritage of Deaf people, passed down through generations of ASL users, includes legends, naming practices, tall tales, jokes, word play, games, poetry, customs, rituals, and celebrations. For more examples of the heritage and folklore of Deaf people, Jack Gannon's Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America (1981, National Association of the Deaf) is an excellent resource.

Foreign language study necessarily involves learning about the values, world view, and way of life -- the culture -- of a group of people. The same is true for the study of ASL. ASL students learn about the rich cultural life of Deaf people. Deaf culture is now recognized and studied by anthropologists, ethnographers, folklorists, and others interested in culture and cross cultural communication. One excellent description of Deaf culture is the recent book by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture (1988, Harvard University Press). American Deaf Culture: An Anthology, by Sherman Wilcox (Linstok Press, 1989), contains several articles presenting a variety of perspectives on the language and culture of Deaf people in America. Oliver Sacks' recent book, Seeing Voices (University of California Press, 1989) is an introduction to Deaf culture, ASL, and the struggle of Deaf people to gain control of their individual and community identity.

The facts are overwhelming. ASL is a true human language fully distinct from English with its own literature and culture. It is important to go beyond these facts, however, and to ask whether, by offering ASL as a foreign language option, we do students an injustice by steering them away from courses which could be of more intellectual or economic value. Is ASL instruction a worthwhile addition to the curriculum?

The answer clearly is "Yes -- absolutely!" One of the educational benefits of foreign language study is that it gives students a fresh perspective on their own language and culture. This is especially true of ASL. Applying linguistic and anthropological methods to the study of ASL and Deaf culture is an excellent intellectual exercise for students. It leaves them with a better understanding of another people's language and customs, as well as a deeper appreciation of their own language and culture.

We do not teach languages only for the intellectual rewards. There are also practical, economic reasons for learning a foreign language. For example, our nation's businesses need employees who can understand the language and customs of foreign people. This might seem to work against ASL because it is not associated with a foreign nationality. Again, the facts do not support such a contention. For example, students in the bachelor of science degree program in sign language interpreting at the University of New Mexico are regularly recruited into competitive positions in business, education, and government. Many students report that they take ASL specifically to make them better qualified or more employable in non-deafness related careers. Those students who want to continue their education at the graduate level find that a background in ASL opens up several avenues for advanced study and research.

Finally, some might wonder whether offering ASL as a foreign language option will cause a decline in enrollment in other foreign languages. The evidence from those universities which accept ASL as a foreign language is precisely the opposite. At these universities there is no record of a decrease in traditional foreign language enrollment due to enrollments in ASL. As a matter of fact, ASL instruction may lead to increased foreign language enrollment. ASL students often report that they are more interested in other languages -- and indeed more likely to take a traditional, spoken foreign language -- as a result of their ASL study. The joy of learning a new language and of communicating with people across cultural boundaries, it seems, is contagious!

Students who know a foreign language commonly find that their perceptions of themselves and the world are richer than their monolingual peers. The study of a language, culture, and literature different than their own propels students beyond the limits of their own world. In all respects ASL affords students the same challenges and rewards as more traditional foreign languages.

Copyright 1991 Sherman Wilcox