American Sign Language Essay, Research Paper
What would life be like with a severe disability? Physical disabilities seem to be
very stressful because many of them develop overtime, but the majority of them do not
affect one?s communication. The thought of being deaf seems to be far fetched to me,
however it could occur under certain circumstances and like other people, I would have to
adjust accordingly. Although being deaf is a disability in which most are born with, it?s
the disability with the biggest impact on one?s way of communicating. I?m amazed to
think that people become accustomed to communicating other than verbally. This
phenomenon is possible through American Sign Language or ASL. Today American Sign
Language is a complex visual-spatial language that is used by the Deaf community in the
United States and English-speaking parts of Canada. It is also considered linguistically
complete, natural language. ASL is the native language of many Deaf men and women, as
well as some hearing children born into deaf families. ASL has changed the lives of the
deaf population and has opened doors to those not deaf for a career opportunity in
teaching and interpreting it. I?m interested in ASL and would enjoy learning it. I was
frustrated to find out ASL was not considered an alternate course to my foreign language
credits. I?m going to explore this topic and find out whether or not it could be technically
considered a foreign language. I would like to give an in-depth look at all aspects of sign
language and compare it to languages spoken verbally.
Before I discuss my research findings on ASL, I would like to discuss what I?ve
personally experienced from it. Last semester I had a classmate that was deaf and she had
a ASL translator come to class each day. This was very interesting, because it was a
Motor Learning course in Exercise and Sport Sciences. I was interested in observing here
cognitive motor skills and seeing if she differed at all. The only way in which I saw here
differing from any other student is she was probably ahead of everyone. I was also
amazed to see her translator keep up with the professor. The professor talked fast and the
translator was able to keep up with no problem, and the student looked as if she
understood everything. One day in lab, the professor had the student teach the class the
ASL alphabet and about fifteen basic words. I found this to be an interesting learning
experience from an ASL standpoint, not motor learning. The professor?s main objective
was to look at the results from a motor learning standpoint, so it served for two purposes.
We also have a friend of the family in San Antonio that is a policeman named Steve.
Steve has been on the police force for about twenty five years and knows English and
Spanish. Steve once had to report to a situation that involved a deaf person. Steve said
he had never felt so helpless, and a week after this incident he enrolled in an ASL class at
UTSA. Steve now has a good understanding on how to use ASL in case he ever comes
upon this type of situation again. Hearing Steve?s story and being involved directly with a
classmate who knows ASL, has given me much curiosity on the subject.
French sign language first came about in the United States on April 15, 1817, in
Hartford. This is the first time America established a school for the deaf. Eventually the
French sign language was changed into what we know today as American Sign Language.
The new style of sign language created much controversy. ?Anti-signers argued that ASL
let the deaf ?talk? only to the deaf; they must learn to speak and to lip-read. Pro-signers
pointed out that , through sign, the deaf learned to read and write English? (Oaks 314). I
think the anti-signers are being unfair. According to Oaks only ?93 percent of deaf
schoolchildren can lip-read only one in ten everyday sentences in English.? Later in 1880
an international meeting of educators of the deaf were absent the use of sign language in
schools was put to an end. This was largely due to Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of
the telephone), which came as a surprise considering he was married to a woman who
denied her own deafness. Almost one hundred years later, a new federal law mandated
?mainstreaming.? This law was beneficial to some parents because it allowed them to
teach their deaf children at home, instead of sending off to schools, where they didn?t
know what to do with them. I feel bad for these children because they?re isolated and they
feel as if there are none other like them. In reality there are many deaf out there that need
to be given the opportunity to be able to communicate through sign language.
For a long time American Sign Language has been looked at as a form of pidgin
English. Until recently, when the true meaning of ASL was discovered by Bill Stokoe in
1955. This discovery came about when Stokoe went to Gallaudet University in
Washington D.C., which is the worlds only liberal arts university for deaf people. Stokoe
went to Gallaudet to teach English, and was also enrolled in a signing course. Stokoe
noticed the students were doing their signs different from the teacher. Stokoe was taught
a code in which each movement of the hand illustrated the meaning of a word. With the
thought in mind of people considering sign language to only be a pidgin, Stokoe saw it
differently. Stokoe saw the students usage of the sign to be more meaningful and detailed.
This triggered the ideal of whether or not deaf people actually have a genuine language.
Many educators would disagree with Stokoe and claim that sign language is unlike
English, because it?s not a natural language. These educators went on to say that sign
language is not a natural language since its not spoken. Stokoe?s response to this
argument was that ?sign language is based on the movement of hands, the modulation of
space and that language is not mouth stuff – it?s brain stuff? (Oaks 312). This response
was straight to the point and clear. I agree with Stokoe, I understand that there are many
contributing factors that make a language, however in order to produce any form of
language it starts in the brain.
American Sign Language does not have any grammatical similarities to English and
should not be considered in any way to be a gestural form of English. Some people
describe ASL as a ?gestural? language. This is not correct according to Robert Ayers
who says that ?hand gestures are only one component of ASL. Facial features such as
eyebrow motion and lip-mouth movements are also significant in ASL as they form a
crucial part of the grammatical system. In addition, ASL makes use of the space
surrounding the signer to describe places and persons that are not present? (Ayers 17).
A person by the name of Ursula Bellugi is investigating ASL from a scientific
approach at the Salk Institute, a futuristic complex of concrete labs in San Diego. This is
where Bellugi found that ASL uses grammar to regulate its flow. An example of this is ?in
a conversation a signer might make the sign for ?Joe? at an arbitrary spot in space. Now
that spot stands for ?Joe.? By pointing to it, the signer creates the pronoun ?he? or ?him,?
meaning ?Joe.? A sign moving toward the spot means something done to ?him.? A sign
moving away from the spot means an action by Joe, something ?he? did? (Lou 83).
Bellugi later went on to focus on whether or not language capability is innate or is it
acquired from our environment? Bellugi felt that if ASL is a true language then our ability
for language must be built in at birth, whether we express it with our mouth or our hands.
Linguistics has always had the rule that all natural languages words are arbitrary. In
English there is no relation between the sound of the word ?dog? and a dog itself, and a
word that sounds as its name like ?slurp? are very rare. Likewise, if ASL follows the same
principles, its words should not be pictures. But ASL does have many words with
obvious meanings. According to Lou, ?In ASL, ?tree? is an arm upright from the elbow,
representing a trunk, with the fingers spread to show the crown.? Bellugi had a toddler at
the age of two and her mom come in to the research lab and observe the toddler?s
behavior. When the deaf toddler would point at her torso it meant ?I? and when she
would point at the mother?s torso it meant ?you?. Just like the non-deaf child the deaf
child would get confused with pronouns such as ?you? and ?I?. Bellugi found that deaf
toddlers have no trouble pointing. Although pointing a finger in ASL is linguistic, not
Most linguists accepted sign languages as natural languages by the 1980?s. They
saw American Sign Language as powerful and as spoken ones. When comparing sign
language to words spoken verbally, there are many similarities in wordplay and poetry.
Signer create handshapes and movements to give meaningful puns, just like any other
language. ?A typical pun in sign language goes like this: a fist near the forehead and a flip
of the index finger upward means that one understands. But if the little finger flipped, it?s
a joke meaning one understands a little? (Marmor 120). A man by the name of Clayton
Valli has done extensive research on poetry in ASL. Valli found that repetition of hand
shape provides rhyming, while meter occurs in the timing and type of movement. When
doing research at the American Theatre of the Deaf Valli found that when using sign
language in poetry and theatre, some people did it with a much more freer movement than
normal signing. With others, he found that rhythm and tempo were more of their
concerns, as opposed to spatial considerations. The way in which sign language is
performed gives great opportunity for researchers to study the brain along with language.
?Spoken languages are produced by largely unobservable movements of the vocal
apparatus and received through the brain?s auditory system. ASL, by contrast, is delivered
through highly visible movements of the arms, hands and face, and is received through the
brain?s visual system? (Marmor 128). This gives researchers a better understanding on
how to go about testing different areas of the biological basis of language. As we all
know the left hemisphere of the brain controls language, while the right hemisphere
controls visual space. Researchers knew that sign language was expressed spatially, but
were unsure as to where they might be centered. In order to find out the researchers
studied lifelong deaf signers who had suffered brain damage as adults. After the damage
had occurred in their left hemisphere, the signers could shrug, point, shake their heads and
make other gestures, but they lost the ability to sign. On the other hand, signers with
right-hemisphere damage signed as well as ever, but spatial arrangements confused them.
An example of this is that one of the subjects with damage to her right hemisphere
couldn?t perceive anything to her left. Although her visual spacing was not functioning
properly this person was able to sign perfectly with both sides of the body. This showed
the researchers in this study that language is for sure centered in the left hemisphere. As
expected, through research they found that learning American Sign Language has an
advantage over verbal languages. Through a test of showing children a moving light
tracing pattern in space, then asking the kids to draw what they saw, researchers found
that the deaf kids were way ahead of the hearing kids.
New findings on ASL support the efforts of linguists such as Bob Johnson.
Johnosn wants there to be education for the deaf beginning at infancy. ?Research by
Helen Neville, at the Salk Institute, shows that children must learn a language -any
language-during their first five years or so, before the brain?s neural connections are
locked in place, or risk permanent linguistic impairment. What suffers is the ability to
learn grammar? (Liddell 199). As the child becomes more mature, his or her brain
organization becomes more rigid. When the child hits puberty it is almost complete. This
is why Johnson is so concerned, because most deaf children do not begin learning sign
language until late. Just being around deaf people alone has significant benefits and most
of the children that are deaf parent?s can hear and are not familiar with ASL. Johnson
notes that more than 90 percent of all deaf children have hearing parents. The deaf
children that have deaf parents have the luxury learning the language from a very young
age when it is most efficient to learn. According to Liddell the average deaf 12th-grader
reads at the 4th-grade level. This is why Johnson is wanting the children to begin to learn
ASL in the crib, and schools teaching ASL. He believes through research that if English is
the second language and ASL is taught first, then the students will learn English easier.
Only six of the hundreds of school for the death are moving toward ASL-based
instruction. The majority of deaf children are in mainstream school being taught by
teachers that are not fluent in sign language.
American Sign Language is a living language that is still evolving. A sociolinguist
named James Woodward studied ASL by observing it at a deaf school. He said he saw a
great variation in the way people signed. Woodward later began to focus on social and
ethnic dialects of ASL. He found that people in the south would use older forms of ASL
than people in the north. He specifically found that southern blacks use the oldest form of
ASL. Just as I learned in one of my linguistic courses language changes over time. That
does not differ with ASL. An example of this is the sign for ?home? use to mean ?eat.? It
has now evolved into two taps on the cheek. Another way that ASL has changed is where
the signs take place, to keep them easy to understand. Signs formerly made at the center
of the face moved toward its outside. This way its not only easier to see the signs, but its
also easier to see the facial expression, which a crucial part of understanding sign
language. The face is usually where an ASL user focuses, using their peripheral for the
One thing I did not know about ASL is how important the facial expressions are.
Signers will use certain facial expressions as grammatical markers. These different
grammatical markers range from pursed lips to the expression that results from making the
sound ?th.? This is one aspect of ASL that would seem to be extremely hard for an
observer to pick up on. One example of how facial and body movement can result
changing a sentence, is when the signer tilts his head forward and raises his eyebrows
while signing. By doing this the signer makes the sentence a question. If the person also
makes the ?th? expression while signing, then this changes the verb with an adverb.
Woodward believes that these slight changes were never noticed because the deaf people
will sign like this to each other, but sign more of the English-like to people that can hear.
The reason for this is because the deaf are an extremely close group that are very cautious
about letting outsiders into their circle. Woodward believes this is important to the deaf
community because it helps them maintain ?social identity and group solidarity.?
The ability to use sign language and having it as your primary language has
benefits other than communicating. Some of these advantages are being able to recognize
different objects. The deaf have an easier time at distinguishing whether or not an object
is the same, but rotated in space, than someone capable of hearing. Researchers have also
found that deaf are able to distinguish faces better than non-deaf.
I would now like to shift gears and focus on the structure of ASL and the
distinctions between it and a language spoken verbally. As we know, ASL is not a manual
representation of English, with individual signs giving meaning of English words.
Although, ?ASL is a complete language, with all the properties of other languages of the
world, but one that has evolved independently of, and separately from, English?
(Nakamura 2). When looking at the different linguistic aspects of ASL we find many
distinctions between it and other languages. ?First of all, the phonology of spoken
language involves the use of the vocal organs to produce vowels and consonants that are
structured in ways to constitute salient input to the auditory system? (Luetke 232). Being
a linguistic student, and writing to a linguistic professor, we are both aware of the
different why sounds are classified in speech, although I was not familiar with the four
basic articulatory parameters involved in ASL. The four parameters are ?hand
configuration, or shape of each hand. (There are about 40 distinct handshapes). Place of
articulation, or the area on the signer?s body where the sign is produced. (There are about
20 distinct locations). Orientation of the articulators, or the orientation of the hand in
relation to the body. (There are about 10 distinct orientations). Movement, or the motion
of the hands from one point to another in the signing space? (Friedman 947). I was
amazed to find that there were so many distinctive characteristics from a phonological
standpoint in ASL. With this complex of parameters, I feel the deaf for sure should be
taught ASL within the first five years of their life.
The next linguistic aspect that differs between ASL and English is the
morphological process. The morphological process of English form and change words by
adding prefixes or suffixes to a word. ?The process of adding prefixes or suffixes occurs
in sequential, or linear, fashion. For example, tense is marked by adding an inflection to
the end of the word, or word class can occur by adding a suffix to the end of the word?
(Gee 301). ASL morphology works different than English. According to Gee, ?ASL
morphology is organized in a simultaneous rather than sequential fashion. That is, rather
than adding prefixes or suffixes that extend the length of a word, ASL morphology
operates by nesting the sign stem within dynamic movement contours. These movement
contours are no affixed to the beginning or end of the sign stem, but rather occur
simultaneously within the sign. For example, a slower, single movement is associated with
a particular set of verbs, whereas a faster, repetitive movement is associated with nouns?
(Gee 313). By the looks of ASL morphology, it seems as if the signers would be able to
communicate just as effectively and efficiently as an English speaker.
The next aspect of linguistics that separates ASL from English is the syntax. The
syntax in English is of course subject-verb-object. ASL has a S-V-O word order, but it
does not always occur. ?Sign order in ASL is more variable than English word order, and
it is governed by grammatical facial expressions, spatial syntax, and other nonmanual
behaviors? (Fischer 14). The first example of this that comes to mind from previous
chapters is the use of facial expression. What I mean by this is facial expression and head
positioning can be used to change word order by putting the strongest emphasized part of
the sentence first. This is what Fischer is referring to when he says, ?This grammatical
phenomenon is called topicalization, and it allows a signer to highlight the central idea of a
sentence by positioning the most important information at the beginning of a sentence?
(Fischer 15). Therefore, ASL does not always have S-V-O sentences. There sentences
seem to be more situation dependent, instead of always having a standardized rule to abide
Familiarizing myself with all aspects of American Sign Language has been an
educational experience. I was interested in researching the controversial issues on
whether or not ASL was considered a natural language or not. I also enjoyed reading
about the research of people on how the hand placement affects grammar. There are
many different parts of ASL that I was unaware of. One of these is how important facial
expressions are to the signers. I thought their main focus would be on the hands, but they
rely on their peripheral vision for that. The research I did correlated to what I personally
experienced with the my classmate. When I observed her she was very athletic and
talented. She also had a very fast reflex time when we would do testing in labs. In my
research findings I learned that signers have an advantage over non-deaf at recognizing
faces and distinguishing objects in space. Lastly, I found the comparison between ASL
and English to be interesting. I thought this was interesting because I feel as if I have a
good understanding of English and linguistics, but I was my primary focus was comparing
it to ASL. When taking this course in linguistics I thought the syntax of the English
language was complex. I now see that ASL syntax is probably just as complex. The
reason why I think ASL?s syntax complexity is equivalent to English?s syntax is because
there is no set pattern like S-V-O, therefore it becomes situation dependent. Unlike
listening to someone in English, ASL requires much attention. You cannot put it on
auto-pilot while someone is signing to you, like you can in English. This assignment has
opened my eyes to entire different language and has given me more motivation to learn
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