FAQ: ASL/English Bilingualism at Gallaudet
Is ASL a bona fide human language?
Yes. Scholarly study of the signed languages of the deaf extends to at least the 18th Century and was a not uncommon pursuit until the late 19th Century when a virtual ban on the use of these languages in the education of deaf students followed a conference of educators held in Milan. Lack of scientific or scholarly interest coupled with disdain for them by professional educators of the deaf contributed to a general sense that they were simply ad hoc pantomime or simple gestural systems, without the complex grammatical structures characteristic of spoken languages.
This perception began to change following the publication of work in the mid-1950's by William C. Stokoe, a professor of English at Gallaudet, which demonstrated, first to the scholarly world and later to the education profession, that what came to be known as American Sign Language (ASL) has all the hallmarks, including sublexical or phonological structure and sentence-level grammar, of bona fide human languages.
Research on ASL and, subsequently, numerous other signed languages has since proliferated, and there are now signed language research and instructional programs in a large number of highly respected colleges, universities, and laboratories around the world. It is quite likely that the published scholarly research on ASL exceeds that of most of the world's spoken languages.
Is ASL a legitimate vehicle for academic discourse?
Yes. According to a website maintained by Professor Sherman Wilcox of the University of New Mexico, course work in ASL is now accepted for credit toward "foreign" language requirements by at least 150 American colleges and universities: List of universities.
Like English and other languages that serve complex societies and have large communities of users, ASL demonstrates dialectal variation and a diversity of registers, from vernaculars to academic registers such as those that are used at Gallaudet. There continues to be debate about the appropriateness of some of these varieties and registers, especially with respect to the extent that they are influenced by English syntax and lexicon. A major task for Gallaudet, as it refines its bilingual mission and practices, is to develop more explicit assessment standards for the use of ASL in academic discourse.
Are there intrinsic benefits of bilingualism?
Yes. It must first be acknowledged that bilingualism is a common condition among the populations of the world-in most parts of the world, multilingualism is encouraged and certainly increases the economic viability of individuals who possess it. The United States, in fact, is probably unusual with respect to its predominantly monolingual use of English. With respect to ASL/English bilingualism, there has been a movement for many years, among hearing parents, to teach ASL signs to their hearing infants. This is seen as a way for parents to take advantage of the early gestural behavior of their children as a route to initiating the acquisition of language.
Does the federal government support bilingual institutions?
Yes. In addition to Gallaudet University, the federal government also provides direct annual support to the American Indian Tribal Colleges through the Tribally Controlled College or University Assistance Act. Many of these colleges have explicitly bilingual missions and serve as preservers and revitalizers of American Indian languages, for example here is the mission statement of the Diné (Navajo) College:
Diné College is a public institution of higher education chartered by the Navajo Nation. The mission of Diné College is to apply the Sá'ah Naagháí Bik'eh Hózhóón principles to advance quality student learning:
- through Nitsáhákees (Thinking), Nahatá (Planning), Iiná (Living) and Sihasin (Assurance).
- in study of the Diné language, history and culture.
- in preparation for further studies and employment in a multi-cultural and technological world.
- in fostering social responsibility, community service and scholarly research that contribute to the social, economic and cultural well being of the Navajo Nation.
Tribal College Consortium website
There are now several explicitly Spanish/English bilingual colleges and universities in the United States as well. Example: St. Augustine College in Chicago
. This website cites the educational philosophy of St. Augustine in its rationale for providing a bilingual program of study:
Bishop Augustine emphasized the importance of bilingual education saying that Christian scholars must follow Moses' example, who before freeing his compatriots from Egyptian slavery, learned the language, culture, and wisdom of the Egyptians, and thus became a successful leader. St. Augustine College has the same expectations of its bilingual curriculum.
Does the federal government support institutions with specialized cultural perspectives?
Yes. Along with the American Indian Tribal Colleges mentioned in the preceding answer, the federal government recognizes and supports the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), as well as programs for Hispanic students.
Federal support for Tribal Colleges, HBCUs, and Hispanic programs
Will deaf students with useable hearing (with or without cochlear implants) want to study ASL?
Yes. Deaf students who were raised without sign language and who attended educational programs other than the traditional residential schools have always come to Gallaudet, many of them in search of a deaf identity that involved the use of a signed language. There is no reason to believe that students with at least partially correctable hearing losses will not continue to want to explore the nature of deafness and the various ways in which deaf people communicate, visually as well as aurally.
Will hearing students want to enroll in an ASL/English bilingual program?
Yes. Gallaudet has enrolled hearing students in its graduate programs since the 1890's and in its undergraduate programs since the late 1990's. Students in these programs are currently expected to become fluent in ASL, and, in fact, it is Gallaudet's unique signing environment that attracts many of them to the campus. There has been an explosion of interest in ASL among college and university students in the US during the past 20 years, and there is every reason to believe that many hearing students will want to learn this language in its cultural heartland. Currently, ASL is the second most taught language in community colleges and the fourth most taught language in universities.
Is there a benefit to society of understanding how language is created and used in a visual medium?
Yes. We live in a world in which multi-media communication is increasing in complexity. This is also true of ways in which information is recorded and retrieved. In their purest form, that is, when they are developed by deaf communities with relatively little influence from the surrounding spoken language, the signed languages of the deaf open a window on the ways in which human beings naturally construct communication systems that are entirely visually based. In this way, they provide priceless information about how complex communication in the visual medium can be done most effectively and efficiently. The federal government has recognized this explicitly through a major grant to Gallaudet from the National Science Foundation to establish the Science of Learning Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2). The purpose of VL2 is to gain greater understanding of the biological, cognitive, linguistic, socio-cultural, and pedagogical conditions that influence the acquisition of language and knowledge through the visual modality.