ERIC Identifier: ED429464
Publication Date: 1999-02-00
Author: Wilcox, Sherman - Peyton, Joy Kreeft
Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC.
American Sign Language as a Foreign Language. ERIC Digest.
In recent years, a number of states have passed legislation recognizing
American Sign Language (ASL) as a foreign language and permitting high schools
and universities to accept it in fulfillment of foreign language requirements
for hearing as well as deaf students. As of July 1997, 28 states had passed such
legislation, and several community colleges and universities (including Brown,
Georgetown, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Purdue, and the
University of Washington) accept ASL as a foreign language for academic or
ASL is a visual/gestural language, distinct from English and other spoken
languages, from sign languages used in other countries, and from English-based
sign systems used in the United States (such as manually coded English systems).
Although the precise number of ASL users is difficult to determine, ASL is the
predominant language--in other words, the language used most frequently for
face-to-face communication, learned either as a first or second language--of an
estimated 100,000 to 500,000 Americans (Padden, 1987), including Deaf native
signers, hearing children of Deaf parents, and adult Deaf signers who have
learned ASL from other Deaf individuals.
As schools have decided to grant foreign language credit for ASL, they have
had to address a number of questions, some of which are discussed below. (See
Wilcox, 1989b, and Wilcox, n.d., for more detailed discussion).
IS ASL A LANGUAGE?
ASL is a fully developed language, one
of hundreds of naturally occurring signed languages of the world, with a complex
grammatical structure (see, e.g., Klima & Bellugi, 1979; Valli & Lucas,
IF ASL IS USED IN THE UNITED STATES, HOW CAN IT BE CONSIDERED A FOREIGN LANGUAGE?
ASL is indigenous to the United States and parts of Canada. At
most universities, however, a language's place of origin has little to do with
its status as a foreign language. For example, American Indian languages such as
Navajo are accepted in fulfillment of university foreign language requirements.
Because many native speakers of the languages studied in our schools live in the
United States and were even born here, many programs are beginning to refer to
themselves as second language programs rather than foreign language programs.
ARE ASL USERS IN THIS COUNTRY PART OF A DIFFERENT
American ASL users are members of American culture. In addition,
they participate in a rich and vibrant Deaf culture that has its own history,
arts (e.g., dance, theater, poetry), and customs (Padden & Humphries, 1988;
IS THERE A BODY OF LITERATURE IN ASL?
There are writing
systems for ASL, but none are widely used to record ASL literature. However,
there is a large body of ASL literature available in movies, videotapes, and CDs
from companies such as Dawn Sign Press and Sign Enhancers, Inc., and from
Gallaudet University's bookstore in Washington, DC. Gannon (1981) is an
excellent source of information about the heritage and folklore of Deaf people.
IS ASL EASIER TO LEARN THAN OTHER FOREIGN
Because ASL developed as a visual/gestural language, its grammar
differs from that of English and other languages that developed as oral/aural
languages; ASL has a much more complex verbal aspect and classifier system than
English. Some students of ASL believe it is more difficult to learn than oral
Designers of ASL programs need to consider issues related to curriculum and
materials, teacher qualifications, and evaluation of students' proficiency.
Students need to develop both expressive and receptive fluency in ASL, have
opportunities to interact with Deaf individuals and attend events in the Deaf
community, and have access to the rich body of ASL literature. ASL classes
should be taught by teachers who have a formal background in second language
pedagogy, experience in teaching ASL, and verifiable proficiency in ASL.
Ideally, the teacher or a co-teacher would be a native ASL user. Some schools
require that teachers be certified by the American Sign Language Teachers
Association. Students learning ASL need to be evaluated according to proficiency
guidelines in the same way as students learning spoken languages. An ASL
proficiency test, the Sign Communication Proficiency Interview (SCPI), has been
developed by William Newell and Frank Caccamise (Caccamise & Newell, 1997;
Newell and Caccamise, 1997), based on the widely used oral proficiency interview
(OPI). Although developed for use with adults, the principles and techniques of
the SCPI may be adapted for use with students in K-12 programs. See the
resources listed below for contact information concerning use and adaptation of
these materials and training workshops.
Caccamise, F., & Newell, W. (1997). "An
overview of the sign communication proficiency interview (SCPI): History,
development, methodology, and use." Rochester, NY: Rochester Institute of
Technology, National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
Gannon, J. (1981). "Deaf heritage: A narrative history of Deaf America."
Washington, DC: National Association of the Deaf.
Klima, E., & Bellugi, U. (1979). "The Signs of language." Boston, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Newell, W., & Caccamise, F. (1997). "Skills important for effective sign
language communication and sign communication proficiency interview (SCPI)
rating levels." Rochester, NY: Rochester Institute of Technology, National
Technical Institute for the Deaf.
Padden, C.A. (1987). Sign languages. In J.V. Van Cleve, Ed., "Gallaudet
encyclopedia of Deaf people and deafness." New York: McGraw-Hill.
Padden, C.A., & Humphries, T. (1988). "Deaf in America: Voices from a
culture." Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Valli, C., & Lucas, C. (1993)."Linguistics of American Sign Language."
Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
Wilcox, S. (1989a). "American Deaf culture: An anthology." Silver Spring, MD:
Wilcox, S. (1989b). "Foreign language requirement: Why not American Sign
Language?" ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and
Wilcox, S. (n.d.). "American Sign Language as a foreign language: Fact
American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASTLA)
Spring, MD 20910-4500
(voice) 301-587-1789 (TTY)
Dawn Sign Press
Nancy Ridge Drive
Diego, CA 92121-3223
(voice and TTY); 800-549-5350
Gallaudet University Press
Florida Avenue, NE
(voice); 888-630-9347 (TTY)
National Association of the Deaf (NAD)
Spring, MD 20910-4500
(voice); 301-587-1789 (TTY)
Sign Communication Proficiency Interview (SCPI)
Institute of Technology
Technical Institute for the Deaf
Lomb Memorial Drive
(voice and TTY); 716-475-6500 (fax)
Sign Enhancers, Inc.
B10, Room C-1
(voice and TTY)
This article was originally published in an issue of The ERIC Review (Volume
6, Issue 1, Fall 1998), K-12 Foreign Language Education, devoted to foreign
language education in the United States.
Following standard practice among most researchers and educators, capitalized
"Deaf" is used to refer to the culture of the Deaf people. Lowercase "deaf"
refers to the audiological condition of deafness.