Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Web Event #2: Intersecting Sign Language with K-12 Curriculum

shainarobin's picture


For hundreds of years, American Sign Language (also known as ASL) has been used as the primary mode of communication in the deaf community.  Because of its use of gestures, hand shapes, and visual expression, ASL’s authenticity as a language has been challenged by many throughout its history. Despite these claims of illegitimacy and attempts to abolish its use, ASL continues to

maintain a strong hold in both deaf culture and history. In recent years, sign language’s  uniqueness and accessibility has made the language increasingly more present in the hearing community. Studies are now showing that sign language is boosting cognitive skills and performance levels in young people in addition to giving them insight into the deaf community. American Sign Language’s positive academic and cultural benefits prove that if added to the mandatory curriculum taught in American Kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) schools, not only would it accommodate intersecting identities but it would help combat audism and the stigma attached to people with disabilities.

What is sign language?

Before getting deeper into the reasons why American Sign Language should be incorporated into the curriculum of all K-12 schools, some background on the subject is needed. Sign language is a visual mode of communication that combines hand movements, facial expressions, and body language to get across feelings, ideas, purposes, and more (Duke, The Everything Sign Language Book, “American Sign Language” 1). While ASL is used by a majority of Deaf people living in the United States, others choose not to use it. The reasons for this decision range from personal preferences and parental influences to educational ideologies (Duke, The Everything Sign Language Book, “American Sign Language” 2).  

In addition to being called a “fake language”, a common misconception with ASL is that it translates word for word from English. This isn’t true. ASL differs from English in the sense that it has it’s very own syntax, grammar, and punctuation. Keeping this in mind, ASL also has precise hand and palm movement that correspond with its unique structure (Duke, The Everything Sign Language Book, “American Sign Language” 2). As mentioned earlier, a debate raged between linguistic academics for many years as to whether or not sign language was “a true language or a string of simple gestures” (Duke, The Everything Sign Language Book 21). In 1960, this question was finally answered. After years of research, Dr. William C. Stokoe Jr., who is also known as the father of ASL, found that American Sign Language met “all of the requisite linguistic criteria to be classified as a fully developed language” (Duke, The Everything Sign Language Book 21). As a result, ASL became accepted as a valid language for the instruction of deaf people.

The big debate between lawmakers and deaf activists right now pertains as to whether or not American Sign Language is a foreign language.  Currently, 40 out of 50 states in the U.S. have legislation recognizing ASL as a foreign language. Because each states decides to what degree ASL can be counted as a foreign language, laws differ across the country. For example, ASL is considered a foreign language in Pennsylvania though you can only get credit for courses offered in middle or high schools (“States That Recognize American Sign Language as a Foreign Language” 1). Sherman Wilcox, a professor at University of New Mexico, pushes that ASL is a foreign language, saying that many people discredit ASL because it’s mainly spoken in the U.S. and Canada. However, languages that are indigenous to the United States, like Navajo, are widely recognized as a “valid second languages for study” in universities nation wide.

Disability and Oppression

In mainstream American society, it is acceptable not to know sign language if you don’t have any deaf people in your immediate friends or family.  Something that is not acknowledged however, is that not only is it a privilege to live in a country that’s accessible to hearing people, it is also a privilege to choose not to learn sign language. This is a choice that deaf and many hard of hearing people do not get to make.Though they may not have to learn sign language (seeing as there are other forms of communication available), they still have adjust themselves to accommodate a world that disables them. Why shouldn’t hearing people do the same for deaf people?

For all intents and purposes, I use Mike Oliver’s definition of disability, as seen in Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride as the basis for my critique. Oliver describes disability as being “the disadvantage, or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and  thus excludes them from mainstream society” (Clare, Exile and Pride 6). The use of the word “disability” to describe deaf people is controversial in the deaf community. Many people that using the word “disabled” to describe themselves is derogatory and untrue. Others consider themselves to be disabled because of their lack of hearing, and experiences with discrimination as a result. Though deaf people are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act, some people feel that because they can function in a normative society with hearing aids, interpreters, and cochlear implants, they do not count as disabled or are not as disabled as others (Berke, Deaf Culture - Deaf? Disabled? Both?).

In the past, the debate between oralism and manualism (the use of sign language) for communication in the deaf community has been a polarizing subject. Oralism was adopted in 1880 when the Milan Congress of Education voted to ban the use of sign language when teaching deaf students. Instead, students were expected to learn oralism, a technique that relied on lip-reading, vocality, and auditory training. As a result, many institutions that formerly taught sign language were either closed down or reformed. This marked an era known as “the Dark Age of Sign Language History”. Many students found it frustratingly hard to practice oralism since they had to form sounds and words that they had no way of hearing. This made it so difficult to learn and understand, that despite severe punishment, oral students would continue to sign in private with their friends.  Oralism is just one example of how society of how society forced the deaf community to transform themselves for the benefit of the hearing community. Today, sign language has reemerged in deaf education and the use of oralism has declined rapidly since the 1980s (Duke, The Everything Sign Language Book, “The Dark Age of of Sign Language History” 20-21).  

An issue in deaf and hearing communities that is becoming increasingly relevant is audism. Audism is the belief that people with full hearing capabilities are superior to those without them. Is our society audist then if we believe that speech and sounds are superior to signed language? While this may not inherently be the message that we’re trying to spread, by expecting deaf people to accommodate hearing people, with the use of cochlear implants for example, society is dictating who does and does not deserve to be heard.

Why should American Sign Language be required to be taught in schools?

By teaching students sign language, students are not only fighting the inequality that exists between hearing people and deaf people, they’re also benefiting cognitively and academically. After researching the benefits of teaching sign language to children, teacher Jenny McConnell found that “contrary to popular belief, exposing hearing infants to speech and sign language does not hinder their desire to speak” (Canadian Teacher Magazine, “Listen, See, and Do: The Benefits of Sign Language”). In fact, it is just the opposite. Children with exposure to sign language are better able to express themselves and use it is a natural progression towards speech, just like crawling is to walking. Another advantage found with teaching sign language to children is that children who are exposed to both speech and sign language improve their language comprehension, reading, and mathematical skills. One study conducted in England found that students who were learning sign language as a part of their everyday curriculum scored noticeably higher on academic tests compared to the rest of their peers who scored lower (Canadian Teacher Magazine, “Listen, See, and Do: The Benefits of Sign Language”).

How should sign language be taught?

A step that teachers can take to incorporate ASL into their classroom setting is using programs like SignSpell. It was designed in the UK  and is used by teachers to help learn and incorporate British Sign Language into their curriculum. If the same program could be modified for ASL, or a similar one was created with the purpose of reaching out to ASL signers, teachers would have an easier time teaching it. Another helpful website is the National Deaf Children’s Society’s (NDCS) website, “Look, Smile, Chat”.  It gives helpful tips on how older students can make sure that they are being accessible and respectful towards their deaf friends and classmates through lessons on deaf culture (The Guardian: “How to teach … sign language”).

One concern of many parents is that sign language may come across as intimidating and complicated to young children. However, sign language is fascinating for children both visually and manually. While it can be challenging, that is not necessarily a bad thing. This gives them something to try to succeed in and encourages exploration. Also, not only are children learning a second language but they’re being exposed to deaf culture and are learning the value of inclusion (Canadian Teacher Magazine, “Listen, See, and Do: The Benefits of Sign Language”).

So, with all of the benefits of sign language now apparent, what is keeping the U.S. from incorporating it into its school curriculum when other countries have done it successfully themselves? While finances may play a role into how second languages are added to mandatory curriculums, I believe that the social, cognitive, and academic benefits that ASL gives students will outweigh the costs it takes to fund it in schools. It’s only a matter of when.

Works Cited  

Berke, Jamie. "Deaf Culture - Audism." Web log post. Deafness., 9 July 2011. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.

Berke, Jamie. "Deaf Culture - Deaf? Disabled? Both?" Web log post. Deafness., 9 Apr. 2009. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.

Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Cambridge, MA: SouthEnd, 1999. 6. Print.

Drabble, Emily. "How to Teach ... Sign Language." Editorial. The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 15 July 2013. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.

Duke, Irene. The Everything Sign Language Book: American Sign Language Made Easy. 2nd ed. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2004. Print.

McConnell, Jenny. "Listen, See and Do: The Benefits of Sign Language"" Canadian Teacher Magazine (2008): n. pag. Listen, See and Do: The Benefits of Sign Language" Spring 2008. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.

States That Recognize American Sign Language as a Foreign Language. Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center. Gallaudet University, 2004. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.  


iskierka's picture

ASL re: gendered pronouns

I thought your essay was really fascinating! For all its merits, ASL doesn't have nearly the use it deserves, so I'm very hopeful that it gets more momentum in the near future. As we spoke in class, it would be especially useful to create a level playing field in business, by giving everyone their own chance to participate, as well as enabling children from a young age, since it's much easier to sign a request than to speak it with still-developing vocal chords. One thing I am very curious about, however, is how pronouns function in ASL - I'm not terribly familiar with grammar in general in signed languages, so how would you specify third-person over first or second, and further more, plural to feminine or masculine or gender neutral? I'm questioning how practical it would even be to use gendered pronouns in a language based not on half-second sounds but more time consuming gestures. 

Anne Dalke's picture

Engendering sign?

Last month I was listening in as you thought about identical twins as the paradigmatic example of identity formation: genetically mirrors, trying to create a space for expressing difference on a base of sameness, “reconstructing your identities on the foundation of what you were trying to escape.”

This month I’m somewhat surprised to receive your history of the use and teaching of sign language. It is of course a fascinating story, and a problematic one (with fewer children being born deaf, and cochlear implants increasingly available to those who are, the major users of sign are no longer the Deaf).  The very language of “foreign” is problematic, given that so many signers are U.S. citizens. And deafness is a central topic in the paradigmatic essay about Culture as Disability (which you should check out—I’d be interested to hear your reactions).

But what I’m not seeing at all yet is just how this discussion arises from, intersects with and feeds back into our work in critical feminist studies. You take your (very general) working definition of disability—“disadvantage, or restriction”—from Eli Clare, whose work we read last week, but otherwise this project doesn’t seem at all to speak to-or-from the discussions we have been having.

I am asking you to form a writing discussion group with two of your classmates who have attended to the gendered dimensions of language (see iskierka on gendered pronouns across cultures, and juliah on the topic of gendered—and indistinct and indirect-- language), as a way to nudge this conversation forward, and nudge you back to the context of this class: might using sign language be a way of intervening in grammatical gender? (I have no idea!) How does-or-might the teaching of sign intersect with the teaching of gender variance? Where might intersectionality be here @ play?