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Qualified to Teach ASL?

The question of "Who is Qualified to Teach ASL?" -- arose in the "Lifeprint-ASLU" Facebook group.  One of the group moderators specifically asked me to respond to the question.  I will endeavor to do so here in a question and answer type format:

Question: How are you qualified to answer the question of "Who is Qualified to Teach ASL?"

Response: I don't like to talk about my own qualifications because doing so is not humble. Since I can see how my background could be considered relevant to this discussion I'll ask you to forgive me in advance as I share the single-run-on-sentence version:

I have over 30 (cough, cough) years of experience as a professional sign language instructor, a lifetime of personal experience as a Deaf/hard-of-hearing individual, an aforementioned Deaf wife, a hard-of-hearing child, an earned doctorate in Deaf Education / Deaf Studies from an accredited institution of higher education, previous ASLTA certification, international "Train the Sign Language Trainer" *experience, over 100,000 subscribers to my Youtube channel, and am currently working full-time as a tenured full-professor of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies at an accredited four-year institution of higher education where I have also served as the ASL program coordinator. Blah, blah, yadda, yadda -- there's more but my dog doesn't care about any of that. She likes me because I take her for walks.

Question: So, who is qualified to teach ASL?

Response: Do you realize that this is a book-length topic? Actually it is a multi-book-length topic covered in multi-year programs with supervised-student-teaching requirements to force people who want to understand this topic to go out there and learn it first-hand since no amount of talking or reading about it is going to fully prepare you. So, let's get clear right now that a few paragraphs in an online thread just isn't going to clear everything up but hey, since you asked I'll do what I can to boil it down.

First let's take a quick look at what "qualified" means. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, "qualified" typically means "officially recognized as being trained to perform a particular job; certified," (Stevenson, 2010).

However, "qualified" can also refer to being "competent or knowledgeable to do something; capable."

So, we have two different types of "qualified" ASL teachers:

1. Someone says you are smart or skilled and gave you a certificate to wave around and/or post on your wall.

2. You really do know what you are talking about and/or how to do something.

It is quite possible to be "competent and knowledgeable" (number 2) regarding ASL without having a certificate stating so (Number 1).

We have certifications programs because second language learners are (initially) unable to know if their instructor is competent or not.

Allow me to state that again this way:
Since most beginners don't have the time or ability to figure out who really is skilled versus those who are "not skilled but claiming to be skilled" we as a society tend to set up certification processes (degrees, certificates, licenses, etc.). It saves time.

To wrap our minds around the concept of a "qualified instructor" it might be helpful to swap out the word "qualified" and replace it with two different words: "valuable " and " verified."

1. What is a valuable instructor?
2. What is a verified instructor?

To which I would respond:

A valuable instructor is someone who is able to bring a lot of value to their students.
It is simple as that. The more value you can bring to students in achieving their goals (in a way that respects, protects, and nourishes the Deaf community) the more valuable of an instructor you are.

Verified instructors are those who have demonstrated (via testing, a portfolio, or a massive amount of observable results) the ability to effectively teach accurate information.  Unfortunately, all too often, ASL teachers are hired by administrators who have not verified the competency of the instructor.  Many ASL teachers are no more qualified to teach ASL than the typical Hearing American walking down the street is qualified to stand in front of a class of English students. Knowing a language and knowing how to teach a language are two different things. A qualified ASL instructor needs to know both.  It is common for those who "do" obtain degrees, certificates, and licenses to tend to start charging money for their advice (because their knowledge has been supposedly been verified).

Since money is in generally short supply the unspoken question for throngs of online "ASL learners" becomes: "How can I get good advice regarding ASL without paying for it?" So they cast their fishing line (questions) into online groups and "hope" someone "qualified" responds.

Strangely enough "asking the group" often works. Why?

Group dynamics is another book-length topic beyond the scope of this response but in brief "group responses" often succeed for the same reason that police officers interview as many witnesses as possible. Not because each witness is an expert on a topic but because each individual saw it from their own angle and if we interview enough witnesses and get enough input on something we can paint a fairly clear picture of what happened. If the picture isn't clear we then start paying expert witnesses (people with certificates on their walls) to show up in the court-room and weigh in on it.

Well-moderated online-groups do the same verification and escalation process:
Individuals share what they have witnessed.
If individuals disagree, it becomes a spectacle and more people start testifying.
If it goes on long enough without clarity being achieved or if it becomes contentious -- someone tags a moderator who functions as an expert witness. If that doesn't solve the issue someone tags the administrator who then functions as a "judge" and decides the case. At that point if someone gets upset and unruly the judge can eject that person to protect the rest of the group from someone trying to "force others to agree" via "anger and intimidation" instead of persuading them to agree via "reason and experience."

Thus a group can function as a qualified ASL teacher.

A well-functioning, moderated group with sufficient numbers and enough interaction becomes on the whole the equivalent of an amazingly qualified teacher. This is despite the fact that individual members (witnesses) within that group can be unreliable.
New second-language learners can find answers to their questions via two qualified teachers:
1. Competent individuals (who may or may not have pieces of paper on their walls).
2. Large, well-moderated groups full of people with a variety of real life experiences (angles).

QUESTION: Can an "educated" student be qualified to teach ASL?

RESPONSE: Qualification isn't an on/off switch that is flipped. Thus an "educated" student is qualified to the extent that their education was accurate, matches the target topic, and brings value to the learner. One of the larger challenges faced when learning from someone else who is currently still learning is that while an (in the process of being) educated student knows what they know that same student doesn't know if what they know is accurate via any amount of serious, real-life experiential testing. By that I mean: The educated student is relying on what they recall having been taught by their instructor. There are two frequent problems with this:

1. Sometimes the instruction was inaccurate. (Particularly if the instructor has not been a long-term active member of the Deaf Community).
2. Often the student remembers it wrong having misperceived or inaccurately encoded the information in their brain.

I recall being at a Deaf event watching a student ask a Deaf person how to sign "AND." The Deaf person showed the sign accurately then the Hearing student reproduced the sign inaccurately (by closing his hand but not moving it sideways at all). The Deaf person repeated the sign (accurately) and the Hearing student did not realize he was being corrected. The student repeated the sign "AND" incorrectly a second time. The Deaf person did not make an additional attempt at correction and simply chose to move on in the conversation. The Hearing student thought he had learned the sign for AND yet he had not. If some other learner were to have come up to the "educated" student and asked how to sign AND the second student would have received inaccurate information. (For what it is worth I later clued in the first student.)

QUESTION: Are you saying that "educated students" are not valuable sources of information?
RESPONSE: I would say that "educated students" are "unsafe" sources of information that may or may not be valuable. I would also say that they can be "made" more safe via the safety of large groups. If you ask one "educated student" the answer to a question you may or may not get the right answer. If you ask a large group of students who have been educated by a variety of different instructors you are likely to get an accurate answer because even if "one" student mis-learned something or "one" student learned from an (unqualified) instructor the other students could share dissenting opinions and shape the answer towards accuracy.  This is no different from good science.  The larger your testing samples -- the more trustworthy your data.

In this particular field (ASL as a second language) having access to a group of educated students is advantageous for the same reason why it is good for six blind people feeling an elephant to discuss their experience prior to making up their minds regarding the nature of an elephant. As good at "feeling" as any one individual is they are still limited to their own individual experience with the elephant (having felt an "ear" but not having gotten around to feeling the "tail").

Even more powerful is having access to many educated students, native (which is functionally a way of saying "highly experienced") Deaf, and trained ASL instructors. The safety is in the group. I've seen individual Deaf and individual ASL instructors make mistakes. I've also seen how nice it is when members of "groups" have been gentle in helping fellow Deaf or ASL instructors "feel some other part of the elephant."  So, let us all value our educated students, our native Deaf, and our trained ASL instructors. We are better together.


Stevenson, Angus (2010) Headword: "qualified." The Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University Press. p.1451.

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