American Sign Language is a complex language with a rich history, but only recently have linguists and institutions recognized it as a world language.
American Sign Language, or ASL, has been present throughout America and Canada since the early 19th century. However, until the 1950s, linguists often relegated it to just being a form of pantomime or charades. It was even excluded from educational settings.
One linguist, William Stockoe, changed that by pioneering studies and programs to have ASL recognized as a language in its own right. Because of his efforts, he is considered the “Father of ASL.”
However, much stigma still remains around ASL. Lack of adequate recognition marginalizes not only ASL itself, but the deaf culture in general. In the late eighties and early nineties, students and educators began pushing to have ASL recognized as a foreign language in universities, which would allow students to be able to take a class on ASL and have it count as a foreign language credit.
Some colleges, like the University of Clemson, hesitated to count ASL as a foreign language credit, asking for proof that the deaf community has a unique culture distinct from mainstream American culture.
Overwhelming evidence does indeed show that deaf community has a distinct culture and that ASL is a unique language with its own processes, structures, and grammar.
“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” says Sherman Wilcox, who teaches linguistics at the University of New Mexico.
Now mandates in most states allow students to take an ASL class and have it count as a foreign language credit.
Recently, universities are also adjusting their terminology and referring to languages as “world languages” instead of “foreign” languages. Stephen Canfield, who chairs the foreign language department at Eastern Illinois University, says, “The whole idea of language being foreign is kind of disappearing.”
In 2013, the deaf community petitioned the White House to reconsider the discrimination that ASL speakers experience on a daily basis. The White House responded that, “there should be not any stigma about American Sign Language.”
The efforts of Dr. William Stokoe and many others is finally being rewarded as more and more communities and institutions in North America recognize ASL as a world language.
Language is essential to identity, culture, and connection. Our society cannot adequately honor the deaf community without giving correspondent honor to their language, the basis of their culture.
A world language, as defined by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language, is a way that“people may be immersed in a specific language community, whether ancient or modern.”
Although its history is more modern than some others, ASL deserves equal recognition with the other languages of the world. ASL is central to experiencing and understanding the richness of deaf culture.