Acceptance Or Rejection Of American Sign Language Education Essay


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This study examines the rationale underlying the acceptance or rejection of American Sign Language (ASL) as a language other than English (LOTE) equivalent by language department chairs in post-secondary institutions in the greater Intermountain West region of the United States. Consequently, the study builds upon the influential work of Corwin & Wilcox (1985) and others (see also Cooper, Reisman, & Watson, 2008; Sinett, 1995), while incorporating foundational work in the areas of American Sign Language (Stokoe, 1960) and Deaf Culture (Padden & Humphries, 1988), and contextualizing it within changes in foreign language education (see reports from The Modern Language Association of America, 2007; Frantz ,1996). [order]

Many reports involving languages use the terms foreign language, modern language, second language, classical languages or other variations. The Modern Language Association categorizes all languages that are not English that are taught in American colleges universities as languages other than English or LOTE for the purposes of this study.

The five chapters of this study include: introduction, literature review, methodology, analysis, and summary. The first chapter is divided into nine sections: background; statement of the problem; purpose of the study; research design; research questions; assumptions, limitations, and delimitations; definition of terms; significance of the study, and summary.


There has been substantial study of the history of sign language in the United States (Miller, 2008; Stokoe, 2005; Wilcox, 1990). In the late seventeenth century, early deaf settlers from England established a community on Martha's Vineyard Island, off of Cape Cod (Groce, 1985). Due to a rise of hereditary deafness among these colonizers, the entire community comprised both deaf and hearing residents who were proficient in the use of a communication style called Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). It is widely believed that this language was naturally occurring, meaning that the language evolved from the gestures used between deaf and hearing family members who did not share a common language (Stokoe, 2005). MVSL was used well into the mid-twentieth century when economic hardship motivated residents of Martha's Vineyard to relocate in search for other opportunities (Groce, 1985).

Around 1710 immigration to Martha's Vineyard ceased (Groce, 1985). Coincidentally, 60 years later a French priest, Abbe Charles Michel De L'Epee, established a school for deaf children in Paris (Lane et al., 1996; Miller, 2008; Stokoe, 2005). De L'Eppe documented each sign used by his deaf pupils that used a naturally occurring manual language which he called Langue des Signes Francaise (LSF). The

Abbe´ learned LSF from his pupils during the documentation process. "Although he recognized LSF as a fully developed language, he determined that it was not a useful vehicle by which to teach the French language" (Miller, 2008, p.227; Stokoe, 2005). The Abbe´ decided to use the gestures and signs that he had recorded as a tool to construct a visual form of the French language, inventing additional signs to visually represent articles, prepositions, and other aspects of spoken French (Lane et al., 1996; Miller, 2008; Stokoe, 2005). The visual methods of representing the French language was used in the classroom with deaf students, and allowed deaf people to defend themselves during court proceedings for the first time (Miller, 2008). The Abbe´ is widely accepted by historians as a key force in establishing deaf education (Lane et al., 1996).

Laurent Clerc was a former student of the Abbe´'s school at Paris and is credited with bringing the sign system to the United States in the early nineteenth century (Miller, 2008; Stokoe, 2005). Laurent Clerc, who had become a teacher at the school in Paris, was approached by a young seminary student from the United States, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.

Gallaudet, like the Abbe´, was interested in educating deaf children and had traveled to England in search of a method to educate deaf students, but had been slighted by the English who were secretive about their education methods (Lane et al., 1996). Clerc had been contacted by Gallaudet and invited to come teach in the United States and share his methods with other educators. Clerc became the first teacher of deaf students in America.

Prior to Clerc's arrival to the United States, deaf persons were using a variety of signs that were largely not standardized. With no formal education these individuals used what is referred today as "home signs" or signs that were created to communicate in a very rudimentary way and without consistency (Frishberg, 1987). The Abbe´ taught his first American deaf students at the Hartford Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb (now the American School for the Deaf) in 1817 using a manual sign language later called American Sign Language (ASL) (Baker & Cokley, 1980; Stokoe, 2005); however, he used LSF, outside of the classroom. Following the Abbe´'s example, students modified the signs used in the classroom for their own use outside of the classroom, blending them with their naturally occurring sign communication (Lane et al., 1996; Miller, 2008). This language is sometimes referred to as Old American Sign Language (Baker and Cokely, 1980). American Sign Language that is used today is referred to as The Modern American Sign Language (ASL). It is the Modern ASL that this paper will refer to when talking about sign language.

Some scholars have cited a naturally occurring American Indian Sign Language, which may have had an influence on the development of ASL in the United States (Kelly & MacGregor, 2007; Wurtzburg & Campbell, 1995). Additionally, there are a number of government films, taken in the 1930s, which recorded American Indian use of sign language (Miller, 2008; United States, 1930). This visual-gestural communication was traditionally used by tribal communities who wanted to barter or socialize, but did not use the same spoken languages. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there was contact between deaf Gallaudet students and these American Indian signers (Miller, 2008). Today, about 60 per cent of modern ASL contains LSF cognates (Lane et al., 1996).

The overview that follows highlights some of the salient features of the split view of ASL, some of which have contributed to the isolation of ASL as a language, as well as others that have furthered understanding of ASL as a distinct language.

1817 to 1870: Hartford, CT to Milan, Italy and the isolation of ASL. Beginning in 1847, the American Annals of the Deaf documents the history of deaf education through the lens of schools for the deaf, the curriculum offered, and the employment of individuals working there, including many deaf teachers (Padden & Humphries, 1988). Issues of this journal also record the language battles [e.g., oral vs. manual communication] that accompanied the education of deaf children and youth (Baynton, 1996). These were not minor language battles, but major ones involving titans such as Alexander Graham Bell, who supported an oral/aural approach to educating deaf children and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, founder of Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University), who favored the use of American Sign Language (Baynton, 1996; Miller, 2008). These language battles, which began in the 1820s, continued through the years until a final showdown took place not in an American town, city, or state, but in Milan, Italy in 1870 Language (Baynton, 1996; Miller, 2008). As a result of the Milan Conference, instruction in sign language was strongly discouraged in an effort to assimilate deaf children into hearing societies.

1960 and beyond: ASL as a distinct language and culture. The historical period between the Milan Conference of 1870 and the second half of the 20th century was the dark ages of ASL. During and after the 1960s, attention was once again given to ASL and deaf culture by a new generation of scholars. Seeking clearer understanding of ASL and deaf culture, William Stokoe (1960) undertook an examination of the linguistic structure of ASL, and Carol Padden and Tom Humphries (1988) published the book that would become the basis for the study of deaf culture in America.

William Stokoe. Doubts regarding sign language as a stand-alone language and the evidence of deaf culture have been countered by Stokoe (1960) and Padden and Humphries (1988). Stokoe's research was instrumental in establishing the linguistic basis of sign language used by deaf people in America. He argued that American Sign Language was both natural (it is used daily) and native (which means that it is the first language of deaf children of deaf parents). Stokoe's research showed that ASL met the full criteria of linguistics' phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and use of language to be categorized as a fully developed language. Inclusive of his study, Stokoe also developed a writing system for ASL that has been seldom used.

Padden and Humphries. Carol Padden and Tom Humphries have spent most of their careers researching deaf culture in America at the University of California, San Diego.  Together they have been able to establish a strong impetus for common behavior and values that define American deaf culture separate from that of American hearing culture. Padden and Humphries (1988) believe that for those who are deaf and use sign language as a first language, sign language signifies group membership and identity. Sign language is viewed by Padden and Humphries as an expression of values that are carried across generations. Therefore, Padden and Humphies reason, sign language is the representation of a common culture, and thus an ethnic identity.

ASL as a language other than English (LOTE). Although William Stokoe's research of the 1960s established a strong foundation of linguistic competence, it fell short for the purposes of this research in the field of language instruction equivalence for education requirements, as well as the discussion of  deaf culture as a piece of language acquisition. His research was limited simply to language equivalence. Like Stokoe, Padden and Humphries' writings did not breach the topic of linguistic equivalence in the educational system; however, they did discuss in their findings relational pieces between sign language and the identified deaf culture.

Currently, ASL is recognized as a language in thirty states of the United States (Davies, O'Brien, & Reed, 2001). In addition, nearly 500,000 people in America use ASL as their first language, and almost all of them read and write English as their second language (Wilcox, 1989b). Between 1994 and 2004, 300 institutions of higher learning were surveyed regarding the teaching of ASL at their institutions. Over 50% indicated that ASL is taught; however, of those that taught ASL, less than 30% allowed it to fulfill a language requirement (Cooper, Reisman, & Watson, 2008). According to the Modern Language Association, a 2009 survey of 313 colleges and universities in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming indicated that 59 institutions teach ASL. Of those 59 institutions, only 15 accept it for LOTE credit (Wilcox, 2011). State legislatures from Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming have official statements recognizing ASL as a foreign language or granting language credit for ASL classes taught in the high school and post-secondary levels. Idaho lacks official statements on ASL, but the Idaho legislature encourages secondary and higher education to accept it for LOTE credit (Gallaudet University, 2004). Corwin and Wilcox (1985) found that 6 of 35 (19%) colleges and universities surveyed accepted ASL as a LOTE equivalent, and ten years later Sinett (1995) discovered that 19 of 107 (18%) colleges and universities surveyed accepted ASL as a LOTE equivalent. In his study regarding the level of acceptance of ASL in the United States, Sinett (1995) included a list of possible motivations of some institutions to not accept ASL to fulfill language requirements. The study showed that attitudes of administrators, attitudes of instructors, and perhaps qualifications of instructors were to blame for the lack of recognition of ASL as a LOTE. A common issue that administrators and instructors shared was a belief that ASL is not "foreign" and, therefore, not a foreign language. Another reason offered was that ASL does not possess a written form of the language or a culture associated with it. In 1995, Sinett discovered significant changes in the acceptance of ASL among colleges and universities when compared to the similar study by Corwin and Wilcox (1985), but the research results still indicated that most continued to reject ASL to fulfill foreign language requirements.

Languages Other Than English requirements. LOTE instruction in America is widely believed to be lacking according to the Ad Hoc Committee on Language (MLA, 2007). Daniel Akaka, United States Senator from Hawaii, stated "Americans need to be open to the world, we need to be able to see the world through the eyes of others if we are going to understand how to resolve the complex problems we face" (MLA, 2007, p. 2). LOTE instruction has been celebrated in reports such as The Yale Report of 1828, which argued the use of Latin and Greek as being core to the classical curriculum. In 1893, "the Committee of Ten issued a report recommending the study of Latin, Greek, German, and French" (Frantz, 1996, p. 44).

Values of foreign language study. Adapted from Dr. Alan C. Frantz (1996) "Seventeen Values of Foreign Language Study," the following are principles widely believed to be the values people have assigned to the study of foreign language.

The study of a foreign language is valuable because it

broadens your experiences; expands your view of the world

encourages critical reflection on the relation of language and culture, language and thought; fosters an understanding of the interrelation of language and human nature

develops your intellect; teaches you how to learn

teaches and encourages respect for other peoples

contributes to cultural awareness and literacy, such as knowledge of original texts

builds practical skills (for travel or commerce or as a tool for other disciplines)

improves the knowledge of your own language through comparison and contrast with the foreign language

exposes you to modes of thought outside of your native language

a sense of relevant past, both cultural and linguistic

balances content and skill (rather than content versus skill)

expands opportunities for meaningful leisure activity (travel, reading, viewing foreign language films)

contributes to achievement of national goals, such as economic development or national security

contributes to the creation of your personality

enables the transfer of training (such as learning a second foreign language)

preserves (or fosters) a country's image as a cultured nation

can be a point for integration of many areas of study

it permits access to information unavailable in English.

Considering the benefits listed above, one could suggest that a person with the fluency of an additional language other than English is better positioned to succeed at work and in life than another, who only possesses English as a language. A bilingual person appears to have more access to information than someone who is competent only in one language.

Statement of the Problem

Over the past thirty years, groups and individuals have approached colleges and universities to request that departments allow ASL to be taught for credit as a language other than English (Frishberg, 1988). Some requests have met resistance from administrators and faculty who claim ASL is not a true language, lacks culture, and possesses no body of literature (Miller, 2008; Frishberg, 1988). In contrast, several universities have accepted ASL for LOTE credit. The acceptance of ASL as a foreign language at the University of New Mexico has been documented by Lamb and Wilcox (1988), who claim that a body of literature, culture, and evidence of a true language exists (Lamb & Wilcox, 1988).

Recent research studies regarding ASL as a LOTE are rare, particularly in determining acceptance or rejection of ASL. In addition to the lack of research in the area of acceptance of ASL programs, no dedicated professional journal or organization exists today with a primary focus on ASL instruction. The Reflector, a journal for sign language instructors, halted publication in the mid-1980s. The primary emphases of the journal Sign Language Studies are linguistics and sociolinguistics, not LOTE instruction (Cooper, 1997). The American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA) is gaining national recognition, but it is a small body that neither reaches all instructors, nor publishes a professional journal. No standards for post-secondary program or instructor qualifications are required by any organization at this point.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study is to explicate the level of acceptance or rejection by language department chairpersons toward ASL being taught as a language equivalent at US community colleges, colleges, and universities. This study can be used to better understand the acceptance, or lack thereof, of ASL as a language other than English. This study contributes to the field of knowledge by providing a deeper understanding of the perspectives and attitudes of language administrators toward ASL.

Research Design

This study will employ a qualitative research design following a phenomenological approach (Bogdan & Biklen, 2003). The researcher will use a collective case study method of collecting data from the participants to facilitate an in-depth understanding of the participant experiences that constitute their reality. The collective case study method "uses several case studies to further understand a phenomenon or general condition" (Ary, Jacobs, and Sorenson, 2010, p. 455).

This study seeks to interview twelve administrators of language departments at colleges and universities in the intermountain region of the Northwest United States. From the 12 administrators selected, 6 administrators will be from colleges and universities that accept ASL for credit as a LOTE, and 6 administrators will be from colleges and universities that do not accept ASL for credit as a LOTE. Participants for this study will be prioritized based on the enrollment size of students in ASL classes at several colleges and universities in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. A list generated by the Modern Language Association (MLA, 2009) of colleges and universities that teach ASL will be used to divide the institutions by state and to rank the institutions according to ASL enrollment, with the higher number of enrolled students being ranked higher than lower enrollment institutions. Administrators of LOTE departments from the highest ranking institutions for each state will be contacted and invited to participate in an interview.

Research Questions

The research will seek to answer the following questions in one-on-one interviews with foreign language administrators of colleges and universities located in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

What are the personal and professional beliefs of these administrators regarding American Sign Language and its acceptance as a language other than English?

How have their opinions changed over the last several years regarding American Sign Language, and are there specific events or processes that have influenced their opinions and policies?

What institutional policies enhanced (ie, support, clarify, etc.) the acceptance or rejection of ASL as a language other than English?

Assumptions, Limitations, Delimitations

Assumptions. It will be assumed that the participants will be honest and up front regarding their beliefs of the acceptance or rejection of ASL.

Limitations. One of the major limitations of this study is history. Many historical events in the United States regarding people who are deaf have gained national and international attention, starting with the movie Children of a Lesser God (1986). It depicted a deaf actress in a movie about being deaf in a hearing world and the struggles that some Deaf experience. The "Deaf President Now" movements of Gallaudet University in 1989 showed deaf students and other adults communicating in ASL on national television, in the news, and in professional journals. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) opened the door for all Americans with disabilities to receive equal treatment. It is believed that these events had some impact on individual perceptions, which potentially altered administrators' overall attitudes toward acceptance of deaf culture and language.

The interviewer is an additional limitation to the study. The interviewer has extensive background in American Sign Language as a professional interpreter and as a Coordinator of Deaf Services, which has the potential to bias the interview towards acceptance of ASL as a LOTE. The key to maintaining effective interviews for the interviewer will be to avoid interjecting personal thoughts on the topic and, instead, to guide the discussion toward a deeper understanding of the participants' personal beliefs.

Delimitations. Participation in this study is delimited to administrators of language departments of colleges and universities that teach ASL in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. For the purpose of this study, data outside the views and attitudes of these administrators will not be explored. Additionally, because this study focuses on American Sign Language, interviews will not be offered to administrators outside the United States.

Definition of Terms

In order to understand this study more clearly, the following terms are defined:

American Sign Language (ASL): The visual-gestural language used as a primary mode of communication in the American deaf community. ASL is also defined as the indigenous language of deaf children born to deaf adults (Baker & Cokely, 1980; Sinett, 1995).

Colleges and Universities: accredited colleges and universities where students may earn undergraduate and graduate academic degrees.

deaf: The lowercase "deaf" refers to the audiological condition of not hearing.

Deaf: The uppercase "Deaf" refers to the particular group of deaf people who share a language (ASL) and a culture (Padden & Humphries, 1988; Wilcox, S. & Wilcox, P. 1991; Woodward, 1972).

Deaf Community: a group of people who share similar attitudes toward deafness and are part of the deaf culture, sharing common language, values, experiences, and a common way of interacting (Baker & Cokely, 1980; Sinett, 1995).

Disability: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more life functions (Sinett, 1995).

Language: the expression of thoughts and feelings by any means: vocal sounds, gestures, signs, facial expressions, etc. (Sinett, 1995).

Languages Other Than English (LOTE): All languages taught at a college or university for academic credit equivalent to foreign language, modern language, second language, classical language, etc.

Significance of the Study

The acceptance of ASL as a LOTE equivalent has varied over several decades, though ASL is the main communication tool for over 500,000 deaf individuals in the United States (Wilcox, 1989b). Some college and university departments view ASL as a language, while others view it as part of an educational exception to the rule of language. Lamb and Wilcox (1988) state, "It is necessary to discover the attitudes and rationales that exist for these beliefs" (p. 213). A determination across campuses is needed to see where ASL fits best in the academic community.

Several factors are apparent in the need for this study. Specifically:

There is a need for updated research. The latest research on this topic was performed by David Sinett in 1995 to determine the universities that accepted ASL as a foreign language. Corwin and Wilcox (1985) had previously studied the acceptance of ASL as a language. Each study used quantitative methods to find trends in ASL acceptance. The trend indicated an increase of ASL acceptance as a language in high schools over several decades, but a decrease at the college and university levels. Each study determined the acceptance or rejection and did not discuss the reasons behind the decision to accept or reject the language. Without this current study, departments might be unable to assess the attitudes regarding ASL as a LOTE equivalent at colleges and universities.

It is important to understand the reasons, beliefs, and attitudes that suggest why one institution of higher education accepts ASL for LOTE credit while another does not. This study seeks to better understand the reasons for the rejection of ASL for LOTE credit. Increasing numbers of groups and individuals are approaching colleges and universities with requests of acceptance of ASL as a foreign language. Their requests are sometimes met with great resistance from faculty and administrators (Frishberg, 1988). This study will assist institutional leaders in understanding how their personal beliefs and the institutional policies compare with those at other institutions.

Corwin and Wilcox (1985) studied the reasons for rejection of ASL. This study used interview methodology to discuss the recognition level, the rejection, and the acceptance of ASL as a LOTE. Gaining an understanding of both points of view is critical to strengthening the study.

Battison and Carter (1982) stressed that the civil rights of the deaf are tied to the acceptance of ASL. Understanding there are several steps in the process that leads to recognition within academic units, a study identifying successes and roadblocks in the recognition of ASL may (a) encourage more administrators to develop positive outlooks toward ASL, (b) add to the growing support for equal status of the deaf (e.g., through recent legal and political action), and (c) improve attitudes about deaf culture and enhance support for equal status, thereby enabling deaf individuals to experience increased access to all services and aspects of American culture. For these purposes it is important to study the issues.


Stokoe's (1960) book about the unique qualities of ASL details the lexicon and syntax of ASL and how it meets the criterion for every genuine, naturally-occurring language. Stokoe's research led to Corwin and Wilcox's (1985) study and to Sinett's (1995) study a decade later. Several researchers have studied parts of sign language studies and ASL prevalence at the university. These studies indicated that further research was needed to determine what attitudes were predominant in language departments of colleges and universities.

This chapter provides background into the issue of recognizing ASL as a LOTE equivalent. Limited research exists on the topic of ASL acceptance, and this study will add to the body of research and further the understanding of ASL as a LOTE equivalent. Although a dramatic increase in ASL prevalence in high schools over the last 20 years can be measured, that same increase has not been reflected in colleges and universities. The results of previous research on the topic have led to the major question of this study: What are the attitudes of language department administrators regarding ASL as a language other than English? Chapter two will review the existing literature on ASL as a language and its history.

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