In effort to expand cultural awareness surrounding the diverse world of languages, Bromberg & Associates presents a new project: Language Insights. This awareness program serves to highlight perspectives from all over the world, focusing particularly on the language’s role as it relates to culture, history and linguistics. This project will be ongoing, providing new insights regularly. Since September 23rd is the International Day of Signed Languages, this week’s Language Insights will cover signed languages, and more specifically American Sign Language.
International Sign Languages
There are around 300 different sign languages used all over the world, and ASL is just one of those many unique and beautiful languages. It is a common misconception that all sign languages are the same, when in fact they are all different natural languages. It has been said that “wherever there are deaf people, there is sign language.” There are myriad ways in which spoken languages are diverse in their history, culture and linguistics, and sign languages are just as diverse.
American Sign Language is one of many languages that we at Bromberg hope to provide insight on. Our peek into the language will give you a glimpse into the rich background and characteristics of the language, and most importantly, the people who speak it. With an estimated 500,000 users in the US alone, ASL certainly consists of a diverse populace.
ASL is used by deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing people all over the world. American Sign Language has had an influence of the global deaf world, being taught in countries other than the US and Canada, as well as being an unofficial lingua franca to many, connecting people in their travels.
A Brief History of ASL
The history of the language also has roots across international borders. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, after whom now there is named a university for the deaf, is famously known for his hand in bringing transatlantic influence upon the language. In the early 1800’s Gallaudet met his young neighbor Alice Cogswell, who was deaf. He was inspired by her ability to learn. He traveled overseas, arriving in France, where he met Laurent Clerc, a French teacher of the deaf. Together, they established the first deaf school in the US, the American School for the Deaf. Being French himself, the sign language Clerc taught in the school was French Sign Language. LSF, along with other influences such as Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language and the home signs of the students, all came together in one place. Through that language contact between peers was ASL born.
School’s Impact on ASL and Culture
While still being a fairly young language, American Sign Language looks a lot different than it did in the 1800’s. For one thing, there’s no longer only one school for the deaf. Though mainstreaming (deaf children in hearing classrooms with interpreters), is a common occurrence, there are also deaf residential schools all over the country. Since nearly 95% of all deaf children are born to hearing parents, many children’s main exposure to sign language is at school, and in residential schools particularly the students have access to deaf culture. Mainstream schools consist mostly of hearing peers and teachers, while residential schools have a large number of deaf people, and there is a common shared language. Both experiences of varied language access are impactful on the deaf community, of which not all deaf and hard of hearing people consider themselves a part of. One way of signifying whether one identifies themself as a part of the deaf community is by using a big D “Deaf” or a little d “deaf.” Someone who has a strong deaf identity might call themselves Deaf. The core of the Deaf identity, naturally is sign language.
When it comes to culture and language, there are a lot of things specific to the deaf experience that influence their form. Because only around 5% of deaf children are born to deaf families, many deaf people experience deprivation of language, or limited access to it. Also, as recent as the 1970’s, some schools banned the use of sign language or gesturing by deaf children, and often, if caught, the students would be punished physically. As a result of such restrictions, access to clear communication is highly valued and advocated for in the Deaf community.
Nowadays, the importance of ASL and the beauty of the deaf experience is just beginning to come into the mainstream. In 1990, the American’s with Disabilities Act was enacted, providing mandated access to language which includes the use of interpreters and access to communication technology, amongst other accommodations. There have also been more deaf celebrities, and deaf actors in movies. As time goes by, hopefully, the hearing world can spotlight and share the true richness of the varied deaf experiences and we can all have a little more insight into the world to which American Sign Language gives us access.
At Bromberg, we have more than 20 years working with various Sign Languages, with the emphasis on American Sign Language, being among the 200+ languages we support. We have a great internal team of ASL interpreters, who are happy to share their expertise in the Language Insights. If you would like to know more, or need ASL Services, we would be delighted to hear from you!