Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Is American Sign Language a "foreign language?"

The Chicago Tribune reported today that while some universities allow students to count American Sign Language classes towards foreign language credit, some do not, citing their belief that ASL is either not "foreign" or not a "language." This is absurd.

ASL is a foreign language in that it is both different from the standard language – English – used in American public schools, and is a formal means of communication between a large section of the populace. Languages do not require a formal written component to be valid, although ASL does include it's own form of translation from English, called a "gloss."

Kate, a Montana resident who has studied ASL off and on for over a decade, notes that ASL has markedly different syntax from standard English.

"Signing or finger-spelling to English syntax is often called "pidgin" and frequently seen in drama productions. The grammar difference is especially noticeable with things like adjectives, for example, when and English speaker says I am glad, an ASL user would be much more likely to sign "Me +Happy +Me."

As in English, ASL also has homonyms but they can be surprising. You would use different signs for "deliver" depending on whether you mean "to rip something off," "rescue" or "to give birth", and some signs are easily confused - the grinding motion for "coffee," done wrong, suddenly means "will you make out with me?" and the sign for "pregnant" becomes "log cabin" depending on finger movements."

Also, "foreign" is not defined based only on geographic distinctions. It is defined as something that differs from a particular subject or group's norm. Similarly, "language" does not require spoken words to be relevant. It merely requires a standard and recognizable set of signs of symbols, such as written characters, drawn glyphs, or finger movements. Technically, ASL does also has an oral component, except the it uses fingers and gestures.

Sheila, a former high school and grade school teacher in Virginia and Pennsylvania, agrees, stating the following:

"It is a very special case, but I would agree that it is a foreign language. After all, Latin is a foreign language whose spoken form has virtually no practical application. It's still useful for communicating (so to speak) with the ancient Romans. ASL allows you to communicate with another special group -- not people from a different country, perhaps, but people from another culture. And it has MORE applications than many foreign languages. You could study Russian and never meet a Russian person who didn't speak English, but the chances of meeting a deaf person are pretty high."

On another note, ASL does have a cultural component, as it is used by members of the deaf community as well as their family and friends. To treat people as if their widely used method of communication is somehow irrelevant is like telling them that they are irrelevant. It is an arrogant stance to take and a close-minded slap in the face.

What do you think, reader? Does American Sign Language count as a foreign language?

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