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Deaf Education Options Guide

American Sign Language

General Description:

ASL or American Sign Language is considered the language of the Deaf Community. It is used in the United States and in Canada. ASL is a visual/gestural language. It is composed of manual gestures called signs in combination with various types of non-manual grammar (mouth morphemes, appropriate facial expression, body movement etc.). Some of ASL’s grammatical features include directional verbs, classifiers, rhetorical questions and the temporal aspect. ASL has its own grammar that does not in any way reflect the grammar of English. Where English is linear and requires many prepositions to create a mental picture of where things are in a sentence, ASL uses the physical space in front of the signer to create the mental picture. Unlike English, ASL is well suited to the eyes. The eyes see “the whole picture” if you will, so a signer can use more than one sign concurrently.


What advantages does ASL have for the deaf child and his parents? All children need a working language and should receive it during the magic time when humans are primed to learn language from birth to three years. “Language is an essential component of normal development for all humans. Children that have an accessible language learn “through informal exposure and through active use.”99 ASL is highly accessible to the deaf child. Kids learn about their world by passively absorbing information. This process is known as incidental learning. Moreover, children who acquire language at the appropriate time also learn appropriate social cues and have fewer behavioral challenges. “Deaf children who learn sign language in preschool do better in academics, learning to read and write English, behaviorally and socially.”100 Many experts in the field of language acquisition question a child’s ability to acquire a second language when they have failed to acquire a first, or native language. There is some evidence that deaf children of deaf parents fare better linguistically than deaf peers born of hearing parents, possibly due to early language acquisition.

Since ASL is visual, deaf children will gravitate towards it. “[Since} Deaf people have hearing losses, they naturally gravitate towards a language received through the eyes rather than the ears and a language which is structured for visual, rather than auditory, processing.”101 ASL is also far easier on a child’s eyes than any of the MCEs. Perhaps one of the most outstanding features of ASL is that this language gives average parents the ability to communicate clearly and easily with their children. One parent shared this thought: “Since communication is what keeps us all connected as families and as a society, the child needs to know a communication language which is easy for them.”102 As children mature into the teen years and then young adulthood, ASL can, with the help of an interpreter, allow them to maximize their higher education. “As the only deaf student, though, I experienced a lot of difficulty. Once my school hired a sign language interpreter, I had access to my education.”103


Although there are a number of advantages to using ASL, there remain several disadvantages that should not be brushed aside or ignored. Ninety percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. The vast majority of these parents are not native ASL signers. Even if their children were identified as deaf within the first few days after birth, they would still be behind the curve. Most languages require five years of steady practice to attain any kind of fluency. The issue of parents being inadequate language models should be a consideration. An early intervention, bilingual program might address some of these concerns. The other concern has to do with the acquisition of English grammar and English literacy. It should never be a forgone conclusion that the deaf child will speak. Some children master this skill and some do not. Therefore written English literacy should never be considered an option, but a necessary communication skill. Since he two languages are very different from each other, English can be taught as a second language. Teachers often use English as a Second Language techniques when teaching English grammar. They also use Signed English as a bridge between the two languages. The best advice that I have seen repetitively is that “the home and school environment must be print rich with books, signs blackboards etc.”104 Another is that parents need to “read with your child. Read some more. Read lots more.”105 Why? Well, hearing children learn language by being bombarded with language night and day. There are a limited number of ways to bombard a deaf child with English. One good way is to flood them with the written word. ASL alone will not provide all of the necessary skills that the work environment demands. Children who sign must have excellent reading and writing skills. They need these skills to communicate with their hearing peers. Perhaps of more vital significance, excellent reading skills allow children access to information. Access to information is knowledge and knowledge is power. “English is ... another avenue to information, in the form of books, newspapers and computers. It’s also a bridge to the hearing world and major job markets, like it or not. It doesn’t really matter if you can sign or speak fluently; if you can’t read or write well, it limits your options in this world. That’s a fact of life we can’t ignore.”106

This document was posted with permission from the author, based on the posting at http://www.listen-up.org/edu/options1.htm. Although this 1998 article remains informative, it is vital that readers do current research.