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The Myth of Separateness:

Is ASL really a completely separate language from English?



(Originally posted to the Lifeprint.ASLU Facebook group May 27, 2022.  Re-posted here for edits and tracking of future discussion points).
 

 

I'm not asking you to accept or believe the following information just to keep an open mind and try to understand the various points being made. The following post is not directed at any one individual. This is simply one of my various "the myth of" type articles. I love you all and think you are great and I so very much appreciate all of your wonderful discussions. You could be watching cat videos but here you are learning about or helping others learn about ASL. Thank you!
-- "Dr. Bill" (William G. Vicars, EdD)

 

===========================
 

The myth of separateness:
 

It is not uncommon for me to read in online discussion groups a statement such as:

"ASL has a completely separate grammar system from English."

Or:

"ASL is a completely different  language from English."


I get it.

I understand how it is that English has come to be vilified and looked down on by fighters for freedom and the acceptance of American Sign Language as a full and natural language.

I understand how respected it is in the American Deaf Community to be a skilled ASL signer.

I understand the fear many have that if they sign in a way that seems English-like -- they will be considered less alpha.

I understand the annoyance and frustration resulting from unintended miscommunication caused by English-based intrusions in the signing of people (who should know better or who are paid to know better) that makes obvious the shallowness and lack of effort put forth by such people.

I really do get it.

But...

To claim that ASL is totally separate from English -- is a false claim.  It is a myth.

Much of ASL is intertwined with English simply due to the fact that most ASL signers live in an English dominant society and thus it is natural and useful for ASL signers to have ways to reference and interact with the language used by the larger society in which we find ourselves needing to work and live.
 

Around 10% or more of typical (Deaf) adult interactive ASL signing consists of fingerspelling (Padden & Gunsauls, 2003).

Fingerspelling in ASL is orthographically linked to English.
(Orthography is just a fancy word for the spelling system of a language.)


Nearly every Deaf child in the U.S. education system attends a school or program (even ASL-based programs) in which we are exposed to and expected to interact to some extent with written English on a daily basis. This often requires discussing English in ASL or in other words -- using ASL to discuss English-based information.

The most basic sign order of ASL (subject, verb, object -- according to the linguists at Gallaudet) is the same as the main or most basic word order of English.

(This is well-documented in the Linguistics of American Sign Language" text.) See: https://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/topics/subject-verb-object-asl-sentence-structure.htm


Multiple meaning signs are often distinguished via mouthing or partial mouthing of English words. (Deny this if you wish but I could easily provide hundreds of examples in online videos of such mouthing being done by Deaf leaders of Deaf organizations and others.) Such mouthing is not required, some don't do it, but neither is it uncommon.

A significant number of ASL signs (hundreds at a minimum) would be rendered meaningless or ambiguous if the English initial were to be removed from the sign.


My children are full and complete human beings -- yet they have a lot of "me" and their mother in them. To claim otherwise would be disingenuous and ridiculous. The fact that my kids may have my eye color or other genetic traits doesn't make them less of a human being.

Yes, ASL is definitely a full and complete language. No question about it.
 

The fact that ASL has adopted and incorporated a lot of English doesn't make ASL any less of a full and complete language.


ASL is not devoid of or totally separate from content acquired from other languages -- including English and that overlap doesn't make ASL any less of a full and complete language.

 

[End]

 


 

Notes:

 

So as to avoid any miscommunication regarding my original post, allow me to share that:

I'm a strong advocate for the use of clear, grammatically-accurate non-voiced American Sign Language (or some other natural fully-developed sign language) with children who are Deaf.  (With all children actually.)

I also accept that when communicating with children who can both see and hear but who have certain processing disorders the use of simultaneous communication (voice and sign at the same time) has various benefits due to multimodal cognitive processing.

However, I encourage people to recognize that multimodal or simultaneous communication often ends up simply being "sign supported speech" which is not the same thing as American Sign Language (or other natural visual languages), has different applications, and is efficacious (achieves good results) with certain groups generally other than Deaf children.
ASL (or some other natural signed language) conveyed via signing (not voicing) for children who are (profoundly) Deaf seems to be what works best. (Feel free to debate that on your own Facebook page if you would like. I'd rather get back to discussing the learning and teaching of ASL in "this" group.)

Other uses of sign language (including multimodal approaches) seem to be effective with non-Deaf children who have other communication needs.

In other words: One size does not fit all.

I encourage us all to consider the needs and preferred modalities of our audience or students and then choose a communication mode or approach that best meets their needs (not our convenience).
 


 

Questions, answers, and arguments:


Question / argument:

Native ASL signers learn fingerspelling differently from those who learn ASL as a second language.  Native signers learn fingerspelling contextually while seeing the fingerspelling of whole concepts in context while growing up.  Native signers learn the alphabet later -- after having been exposed to ASL.  People who learn ASL as a second language learn to spell the alphabet and then map those letters to English words.  See: https://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/topics/dactylaprothymia.htm

 

Response / Answer:

Yes, people who grow up in signing households tend to initially learn and acquire familiarity with fingerspelling via context.
That is only half of the story though since later on fingerspelling is indeed commonly used by adult skilled Deaf signers to map to and represent words that are used in the larger society (in the U.S. that is generally English). In other words, adult Deaf ASL signers often incorporate English words into ASL. (More so than we incorporate Japanese words).
 

 

 



 

Question
Is it not the case that there are skilled Deaf signers who prefer to avoid fingerspelling (except for names) because they feel that fingerspelling represents an intrusion of English into ASL that affords an "easy way out" to avoid really learning the language?

Response:

Based on a 2003 review of 5,400 lexical items collected from 36 signers, Carol Padden and Darline Gunsauls proposed that between 10 and 35 percent of ASL discourse consists of fingerspelling.
Source: Padden, C. A., and D. C. Gunsauls, 2003. How the Alphabet Came to Be Used in a Sign Language. Sign Language Studies 41: 10--33.

Even at the smaller percentage -- that's an awful lot of "names."

In a different study, using a database of 4,111 signs from a fairly wide and diverse selection of ASL discourse, Jill P. Morford and James MacFarlane came up with a statistic indicating that of 6.4 percent of ASL discourse consisted of fingerspelling.
Source: Morford, J., and J. MacFarlane. 2003. Frequency Characteristics of American Sign Language. Sign Language Studies 32: 213--25.

Thus statistically, fingerspelling of certain concepts is often faster, easier, less ambiguous -- or in some other way advantageous at least 6.4 percent of the time and (according to a prominent ASL researcher -- Padden) often more frequently than that.

I'm not suggesting nor encouraging the fingerspelling of concepts as a replacement for learning the commonly accepted sign for the target concept. Rather I'm suggesting the opposite:

Beginning-level signers (who are typically but not always Hearing people) for a variety of reasons -- some of which I listed in the original post) are often reluctant to fingerspell those 6.4 percent or more of words which are commonly fingerspelled by the majority of adult, socially active, native Deaf skilled signers.
 



Additional Notes:
 

The occasional need to discuss or refer to English is one of the reasons why ASL has literal signs for "quote," "apostrophe," "comma," "period," and "exclamation point!"


If you are discussing people, things, and places you will likely use more fingerspelling.

If you are describing actions and happenings you will likely use less fingerspelling.

In general though it is safe to say that fingerspelling is fairly common in American Sign Language.

Research statistics regarding the frequency of fingerspelling in ASL varies widely but researchers have found that fingerspelling constitutes from 6.4% (Morford & MacFarlane, 2003) to as high as 35% (Padden & Gunsauls) of ASL discourse.

References and notes:
Based on a 2003 review of 5,400 lexical items collected from 36 signers, Carol Padden and Darline Gunsauls proposed that between 10 and 35 percent of ASL discourse consists of fingerspelling.
Source: Padden, C. A., and D. C. Gunsauls, 2003. How the Alphabet Came to Be Used in a Sign Language. Sign Language Studies 41: 10--33.

In 2003 using a a database of 4,111 signs Jill P. Morford and James MacFarlane found that 6.4 percent of ASL discourse consisted of fingerspelling.
Source: Morford, J., and J. MacFarlane. 2003. Frequency Characteristics of American Sign Language. Sign Language Studies 32: 213--25.

 

 




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