Language of the
In a message dated 9/8/2007 8:09:42 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time,
an ASL teacher writes:
Dear Dr. Bill,
When I'm hanging out with my Deaf friends or interpreting for
Deaf clients, I find that the 90% of them sign WAY more "Pidgin"
than ASL as far as grammar rules and mouthing words, etc. I
know this is common when there are a lot of hearing people
around, but I've been at parties where I was one of 2 hearing
people there and as I observed conversations, I saw SO many of
them voicing while signing in private conversations to other
Deaf people and in general following English sentence
structures. Of COURSE there were tons of ASL features (tons of
facial expressions, gestures, mouth morphemes, etc) but it's
just totally different than I've been formally taught in any of
my classes. I know that's probably very similar to how
conversational English and "by the book" English are totally
different, but I struggle with what to teach in my classes
because I have students who want to become interpreters and I
don't want to teach them only conversational sign. Do you
understand my dilemma? Do you have any suggestions?
-- "Cindy" (Name on File)
Dear ASL Instructor,
There is a
difference between "the language of the Deaf Community" and American
Sign Language (ASL).
The moment certain people read that statement they are likely to
pull out their knives and start advancing on me--but stay with me and
I'll explain what I mean.
Let me share with you an analogy.
Do you like chicken soup?
Suppose you were to teach a student how to make chicken soup. What
if you told her, fill a pot with water, put in some chicken meat and
Are you done? Do you have chicken soup?
Obviously there is much more to chicken soup than just chicken in
In addition to the chicken we will certainly want some vegetables
(such as carrots, celery, and onions), herbs (sage, thyme, bay leaf
and parsley), plus salt and usually some pasta or rice.
And while it is true that chicken is the key or most
important ingredient in chicken soup, it is certainly not the only
ingredient--and in most cases it isn't even the most
frequently occurring ingredient. Chicken soup is mainly
noodles and water.
There is much more to the "Language of the Deaf Community" than just
the form of American Sign Language cited in textbooks.
The citation form of ASL is the key or most important ingredient in
the Language of the Deaf Community, but it certainly isn't the only
ingredient, and -- as you've observed -- at many Deaf events
"academic ASL" (note the quotes and the use of the word academic)
isn't even the most frequently used ingredient. The language of the
Deaf Community is a soup. It is a continuum of ingredients. In our
classes we focus on the meat of the soup (ASL) not because it is the
most frequently occurring ingredient, but because it is the key or
most important ingredient. It is the ingredient that adds the most
flavor and is what differentiates our soup (language) from the soup
of other cultures.
It is important to teach our students that the language of the Deaf
Community is a continuum of communication methods and that we will
be focusing on the area of that continuum known as ASL. We are
choosing to do so because ASL is the area on the continuum that is
at the heart of the (American) Deaf Community. Of all the
communication styles in the continuum, ASL is the one that has all
the characteristics and features of an autonomous language and
thus is able to fill foreign language requirements at many high
schools and colleges.
William Vicars, Ed.D.
An ASL Instructor shared with me her observation that the type of
signing that is done by 90% of her Deaf friends and clients is not the
type of signing that is taught in many "ASL" classes.
So, who is "right?" How do we decide what ASL "really" consists of? Do
we go with 90% of the Deaf community, or a handful of Ph.D.s who write
There are long lists of "rules" prescribed by ASL teachers that result
in a type of signing that is definitely "not" Signed English, but then
again, it isn't the type of signing done by 90% of the Deaf community
In considering this topic I want you to also think about a "bell curve."
The leading edge of that curve represents the formal, carefully
constructed ASL examples you find in many ASL textbooks. The hump
of the curve represents the type of signing done by the majority of the
Deaf Community in everyday communication. The trailing edge of the
curve represents the invented Manual English systems as taught in
Click image for larger version:
("Language of the Deaf Community" Graphic
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