The Case for Recognizing American Sign Language
From the Fall 1987 issue of The College Board Review, a pitch for making ASL a more common option in language studies
An estimated 13.73 million viewers tuned into the 94th Academy Awards on March 27—an improvement on the 2021 ceremony, which attracted an estimated 10.5 million people, a record low for the show. This year’s improvement is welcome for Hollywood and the Academy, but it's especially good news for an indie like CODA, the winner of three Oscars, including Best Picture—and for American Sign Language (ASL).
Written and directed by Sian Heder (who won Best Adapted Screenplay), the Gloucster, Massachusetts-based drama centers on Ruby (Emilia Jones), the only hearing person in her deaf household, torn between helping her family save their fishing business and attending a performing arts college. (The title, CODA, is an acronym for “Child of Deaf Adults.”) The film features a cast of non-hearing actors, led by Marlee Matlin (1987's Best Actress for Children of a Lesser God) and Troy Kotsur (who won Best Supporting Actor, the first Deaf man to win an acting Oscar), playing Ruby's parents, and much of it is told through signing.
CODA debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and was picked up by Apple, to be distributed on Apple TV+. But even still, the Oscars telecast is a platform with an outsized influence, bringing the film to a wider audience. In the lead up to the event, as CODA received end-of-year accolades and high-profile nominations, its cast and crew were fixtures on the awards season circuit. And that meant ASL was, too. Kotsur's speech during the Oscars ceremony, which he signed with the help of a just-offstage interpreter, was one of the highlights of the night, by turns funny and moving and inspiring the audience to raise and shake their hands in ASL applause. Earlier in the evening, during the Oscars red carpet, Kotsur spoke with the non-deaf Terrence J with the assistance of an ASL interpreter. And in praising Kotsur's performance, and the film itself, Terrence J said he left CODA wanting to learn sign language.
CODA is the first film with a predominantly Deaf cast to win Best Picture. But it isn't the first to bring ASL and the Deaf community into mainstream awareness. The Sound of Metal, released in 2019, dealt rawly with hearing loss and deafness and was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture. (It won for Best Sound and Best Film Editing.) And before that was the aforementioned Children of a Lesser God, released in 1986 and nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture. (Matlin was its only winner.)
For anyone like Terence J, who watched CODA and were inspired to learn ASL, there are lots of options, from formal education programs and classes in K-12 schools and colleges to apps and websites. (The National Association of the Deaf is a good place to start to find a route that's right for you.) But 35 years ago, there wasn't such a robust network of ASL opportunities to tap into—and, as Stephen Wilbers wrote in the Fall 1987 issue of The College Board Review, the infrastructure was lacking because of some major misunderstandings about ASL.
"In our assessment of American Sign Language, we found that many people think of ASL as a derivative or degenerate form of English," wrote Wilbers, then-director of student academic support services in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. "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, research has shown that ASL is a natural and complete language, comparable in complexity and expressiveness to oral and written languages."
Wilbers' piece is a macro-view of ASL's development, with special attention paid to why deaf students in the 19th century were often better educated than those in the 20th. (It's a painful, wrenching history.) But its heart is a research-backed pitch for universities to recognize ASL as a unique language—not only for the purposes of creating courses, but to help destigmatize deafness on campus. "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," Wilbers writes, "recognizing ASL as a natural language seems like part of a larger piece."
It's hard to say how many people use ASL; it’s a data point never collected by the U.S. Census. Some estimates place the number between 100,000 and 500,000 people. What’s not in doubt, though, is that the conversation around ASL has changed—and improved—since Wilbers' piece was published. It’s recognized as a language in 45 states, and there are now nearly 40 higher education institutions with ASL majors, with many more community colleges offering ASL programs. That's not to say deaf students don't face challenges; a 2019 report from the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes presents stark insight into the realities facing non-hearing students—and the opportunities that they could have, if colleges and universities more intentionally served and engaged with this community.
Given the success and stature of a film like CODA, it's possible interest in ASL from the hearing community will see an Oscars bump. But either way, the film is a testament to the vitality of the non-hearing community, its place in the larger American tapestry, and the need for continued normalization and integration of American Sign Language in our lives and, especially, schools.
A teacher leads an American Sign Language Class at New York's Borough of Manhattan Community College.
Last November a prelingually deaf student, raised with deaf siblings by deaf parents, petitioned the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota for exemption from the second language requirement. American Sign Language (ASL), he claimed, was his native language. English, which he had begun to study at age seven, 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 vocabulary of approximately 5,000 to 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 did not set a precedent 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. While 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.
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 a culture linguistically different from their own? and (3) Would this field of study involve 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, research has shown that ASL is a natural and complete language, comparable in complexity and expressiveness to oral and written languages. 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 discovering, 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" twentieth-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, and 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 by combining or expanding existing signs. An example cited by Ursula Bellugi and Edward S. Klima in "Structural Properties of American Sign Language"1 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 ASL 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 United States and Canada, when, in so many other countries, the deaf lack a common language and are divided by innumerable dialects and patois?
Moment from the 1986 film "Children of a Lesser God," starring William Hurt (left) and Marlee Matlin, who won an Oscar for her performance.
The answers to these questions have a great deal to do with the life and contribution of Laurent Clerc. A genius who happened to be deaf, 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.) 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 afterwards 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" of 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. It is a tragic story, as Harlan Lane tells so compellingly in When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf,2 of well-intentioned educators depriving prelingually deaf children of their principal and most natural means of acquiring language at an early age. It also brings us to the disturbing question of why non-hearing people were often better educated and generally better integrated into American society in the nineteenth century than they have been in this century. And it leads 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 late nineteenth 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 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 were themselves 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 of 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 definable community and culture of the deaf. 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 seeks 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, given the civil rights movement, society's growing awareness of 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 a phonemiclike analysis of American Sign Language." Stokoe's work reflected a new commitment on the part of linguists to serious research on ASL.
Troy Kotsur, winner of the Actor in a Supporting Role award for ‘CODA’ poses in the press room at the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on March 27, 2022, in Hollywood, California.
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 postsecondary institutions in those states may begin offering coursework in ASL if they choose. In addition, a number of states like 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 a culture linguistically 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.
The author wishes to express his appreciation to Deb Guthmann for her invaluable assistance in gathering information for this article.
1. Ursula Bellugi and Edward S. Klima, "Structural Properties of American Sign Language," in Deaf Children: Developmental Perspectives, Lynn S. Liben, editor. New York: Academic Press, 1979, p. 62.
2. Harlan Lane, When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf. New York, Random House, 1984.