Seeing the Signs

Why American Sign Language Should be Taught at School

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According to a 2010 census from Gallaudet Research Institute, approximately 13% of the US population is deaf or hard of hearing. With such a considerable percentage, many questions have been asked regarding the role of the language in the education system. Should ASL be taught in schools? Should ASL be considered a foreign language for college requirements?

The basis of these questions lies in the benefits and relevancy of the language in today’s society and culture.

Like learning any other language, learning ASL opens the signer to a new demographic of people with which he or she can communicate. With 13% of the nation being ASL users, the job market is looking for individuals who can open this demographic to companies. Students who learn ASL certainly gain an edge in their applications and stand out amongst their non-signing peers.

Often, when someone mentions communication, many immediately think about speaking. However, studies performed by non-verbal communication researcher, Dr. Albert Mehrabian, have shown that 55% of communication actually happens through body language. In ASL, questions are often asked with facial cues. For example, one usually draws the eyebrows together when asking a question that starts with “what.” Learning ASL trains students to not only physically read a language of gestures but to also pick up the nuances of body language in ASL. Signers also pick up a habit of checking for understanding during conversation and reformulating ideas to ensure this understanding that non-signers often do not have.

Schools should also begin to teach ASL because of the physical benefits that can result from a signing education. Learning ASL can improve one’s spatial awareness, mental rotation skill, visual sensitivity.

As both students and teachers around the country are increasingly fighting for ASL classes, valid questions have risen in debates. A lot of these questions rise from the misconceptions of the language itself.

“It is not a derivative of English,” explained proponent of ASL classes Sherman Wilcox. “ASL contains structures and processes that English does not. ASL is not a “simplified” language, but rather a complete language with its own unique grammar.”

ASL is also rejected as a foreign language because it is indigenous to the US. In response, proponents of ASL classes, such as Wilcox, point out that Native American languages, such as Navajo, are indigenous to the US but are recognized as valid foreign languages for study. Opponents also cite the supposed lack of “deaf culture” that disqualifies ASL as a valid foreign language to be taught in schools. However, deaf culture is indeed real.

“You will gain a rich cultural heritage of the deaf community, which includes a distinguished tradition of visual poetry, storytelling, theatre, jokes, folklore and other forms of cultural expressions,” describes New York’s Onondaga Community College’s webpage about why students should consider learning ASL.

Sign language may be central to deaf culture but is not its only aspect. ASL performers use their talents to bring awareness to deaf culture. For example, deaf linguist Clayton Valli used his work and workshops to raise appreciation for ASL poetry. Deaf culture also involves many values that revolve around the deaf identity. Not speaking and not moving one’s mouth when signing is important etiquette in deaf culture. Such interesting facts of deaf culture remain unknown to non-signers when ASL classes are unavailable to them.

Studying ASL allows students to learn how to express themselves in a new way. Students become closer to the form of communication that is even more inherent in our abilities than speech itself. Schools should start teaching ASL to introduce students to a world of opportunities and experiences they may have not known before.

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