12. ASL as Our Language
American Sign Language is the native language of an estimated two to four million, or possibly ten million, Deaf people in the United States and parts of Canada. (We don’t have exact numbers, as no accurate census has ever been undertaken of ASL speakers.) It is also the third most-taught foreign language in college, ranking not far behind Spanish, and gaining in popularity.
ASL is a full and true language, just as English and Spanish are, developed and refined by generations of deaf people, and constantly evolving. As noted in For Hearing People Only:
American Sign Language (ASL) is the language used by the Deaf community of the United States and parts of Canada. It is the bond that unites the Deaf community, its linguistic foundation, its common currency. The cherished inheritance of members of this community, ASL is the native language of children of Deaf families, and is eagerly picked up and learned by deaf and hearing students of all ages. It is experiencing a boom in popularity, and ASL scholarship and creativity are flourishing.
ASL is not “bad English,” “broken English,” “short English,” or any kind of English. Nor is it Morse Code, Braille, or pantomime. ASL is a unique language with its own grammatical rules and syntax (sentence structure), and is every bit as precise, versatile, and subtle as English. In some ways, it’s even more so.—Matthew S. Moore and Linda Levitan, For Hearing People Only, Fourth Edition, Chapter 1
William C. Stokoe a Chaucer scholar who was brought to Gallaudet College (now University) to teach English in 1955, subjected the sign language he observed on campus to linguistic analysis, and made the momentous discovery that it was a full-fledged language—a discovery that had tremendous political implications. He first published his findings in 1960, giving the language the name American Sign Language, the name we use today.
Stokoe is celebrated as the founder of ASL linguistics. The fields of ASL scholarship, interpreting, and creativity have evolved dramatically from that quiet beginning. So has the field of Bilingual ASL/English neurolinguistics and sociolinguistics—studying the cognitive, educational, and social benefits of ASL to Deaf children.
We believe that all deaf babies, children, teenagers, and adults have a right to free, unimpeded access to ASL. We insist that ASL is not an option or frill, or a minor language that can be picked up after speech proficiency has been established, but a human, civil, and linguistic right.
We respect the right of deaf people to use speech (spoken English and other languages) as their primary modality, depending on the severity of their hearing loss, but recognize that ASL is the primary language of the Deaf community, the linguistic bond that unites us, a means of communication, of learning and teaching, of socializing, and of artistry. We want ASL to achieve the respect and recognition it deserves.
Several states currently recognize ASL as a language. We would like to see all states accord ASL official recognition as a language.
See also: Linguistic Minority