American Sign Language in High School

Should students be able to study American Sign Language in high school?

Today, the answer is a resounding yes! Educators and high schools are eager to provide American Sign Language, or ASL training to high school students.

But just a couple decades ago, that question was hotly debated. Many colleges and high schools refused to recognize American Sign Language as a foreign language. In 1986, only 1% of American High Schools offered American Sign Language classes as a foreign language credit.

They viewed as a derivative of English, not a language in its own right. Some people said ASL wasn’t foreign because foreign languages are attached to a distinct culture and tradition of written literature.

This view does not take into account the existence of a highly vibrant Deaf culture, complete with its distinct tradition of arts, storytelling, and language—ASL.

Slowly, through the faithful effort of the ASL community, public culture began to change its stance on ASL as a foreign language. Whereas only 28 states accepted ASL as a foreign language in 1997, but by 2004, that number had risen to 38. More and more students, both hearing, deaf, and hard-of-hearing began to have the opportunity to study ASL in their own high school.

Nevertheless, just because a state recognizes ASL as a foreign language does not mean that its public schools necessarily offer ASL; there are states where ASL is recognized where no schools offer ASL. Conversely, there are some schools that offer ASL as a course even though the state does not formally recognize it as a foreign language.

Today, there are over 1,000 public high schools nationwide that offer American Sign Language courses. 150 of these are in Washington. Good job, Washington!

Offering ASL was uncharted territory for educators and public school administrators. During the late 90’s and early 2000’s, educators developed qualifications for ASL teachers. They looked for teachers who were not only fluent in ASL and but also actively involved with the Deaf community.

Why would that be important? ASL is deeply tied with the Deaf community. In order to truly understand and be fluent in the language, students also have to learn about the community where that language thrives.

By 2005, the numbers for ASL students and teachers is very encouraging. From 2004 to 2005, there were 723 certified ASL teachers in the nation. Many of these teachers hold multiple certifications, including Deaf Education, Interpreter Training Programs, and education degrees.

Most importantly, by that same date, there were over 73,000 students enrolled in ASL courses in America. That doesn’t mean the fight is over. There are still many public schools where students don’t have access to ASL training, but through the efforts of ASL advocates, that is bound to change!