The meep of the alarm dragged me from the warmth of my quilt cocoon and smack into Monday morning. I had to bat at it four times before it finally stopped and I found my glasses. 6:00 A.M. and ... [+]
A Uniquely American Language
America is made up of hundreds of unique minority populations, and one is the Deaf Community. Our country borrows its principal spoken language from our one-time colonial power, England. However, the American Deaf Community uses a language all its own: American Sign Language or ASL.
ASL was born in 1817 in Hartford, CT, the result of what is known as creolization, a process by which separate languages mix, share and borrow features and vocabulary to create a language entirely new. And the story of how it came to be is one of American ingenuity.
Thomas Gallaudet was a young divinity student in Connecticut. He intended to be a missionary, but his life was changed forever when, looking out his window one day, he saw a group of children playing in his neighbor’s garden. One little girl was playing alone and when he went out to encourage her to join her playmates, he discovered that she was deaf. Within the space of a few minutes he had determined that, although languageless, she was bright, and he asked her father Mason Cogswell, a prominent surgeon, about her education. He learned that attempts to integrate little Alice with hearing children had been unsuccessful and that Cogswell was trying to develop a plan to address her needs and the needs of other deaf people. Gallaudet had found his mission.
Cogswell sent Gallaudet to Europe for three months to learn methods of educating deaf people. He went first to England but was frustrated by the fact that the Braidwood family, which had established deaf education in the UK, would only teach him their methods if he agreed to stay and teach there for five years. Then he happened upon an exhibition in London which was to change everything.
Two men from a school for the deaf in Paris were demonstrating the methods devised by its founder, the Abbe de L’Epee, who had learned the manual language of deaf street children and expanded upon it in order to successfully teach a full curriculum. One of the men was Laurent Clerc, a recent graduate of the school who was planning to teach there. Unlike the Braidwoods, Clerc and his teacher, Abbe Sicard, were happy to share their methods. Gallaudet accompanied them to the school in Paris and was astounded at the high level of success demonstrated by the students there.
He convinced Clerc to come to America with him and to become our first teacher of deaf students. On the sea voyage home, Clerc taught Gallaudet the basics of French Sign Language and when they reached CT Cogswell was delighted. He had been fundraising and identifying deaf people from all over the eastern seaboard who might benefit from a school the three would found in Hartford. He had identified two large groups of deaf people, on Martha’s Vineyard and in Henniker, NH, who had each developed their own form of sign language. Most other potential students used a form of ‘home sign’ to communicate with the hearing people in their lives.
The school (first called the ‘American Asylum for the Education of Deaf and Dumb Persons’) opened its doors in 1817 with 31 students of all ages from ten states. Alice Cogswell would no longer be denied an education. The school, now called the American School for the Deaf, predated the American public school system and continues to successfully teach deaf children.
But a strange and wonderful thing happened there, and it is documented in the journals Laurent Clerc kept. The French Sign Language he brought with him immediately began to absorb the features and vocabulary of the sign languages used on Martha’s Vineyard and in Henniker as well as the home sign systems used by other students. Within about three months, an entirely new language was born. Clerc, a brilliant, creative and empathetic teacher, evolved along with this new language and used it to teach his students with great success.
Just as the Paris school was happy to share its success with the world, the Hartford school quickly trained teachers who set off to found other schools for deaf people throughout the US. By the 1860’s, more than 30 schools were continuing the mission. In 1864 Thomas Gallaudet’s son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, founded the ‘Columbia Institution for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind’ in Washington, DC. This became Gallaudet College in 1894 and was granted university status in 1986. It remains the only university in the world for deaf people and is known as ‘The Mecca of the Deaf-World.’ In 1988, student protests not unlike ‘Black Lives Matter’ led to the hiring of a Deaf university president and the stipulation that all future presidents would be Deaf as all presidents of historically Black colleges and universities are Black.
Deaf people who use ASL identify as a distinct cultural and linguistic minority and use the capital ‘D’ to denote this. They are proud of their language and happy to share it with anyone who wishes to learn. ASL interpreting is a growing field and has gained much exposure as its inclusion in public broadcasts has become more and more prominent. Most ASL interpreters are hearing people, but there is a growing number of Certified Deaf Interpreters who work in tandem with hearing interpreters to ensure that the message is received clearly and completely.
Unfortunately, all minority groups experience discrimination, and the Deaf Community is no exception. More than 90% of Deaf children are born into hearing families, many of whom know nothing about ASL or the Deaf Community. Parents rarely have access to Deaf people who can mentor them in their parenting. ASL is suppressed by those who believe speech is the best way to educate Deaf children despite the fact that amplification (including the popular cochlear implant) fails to ‘cure’ deafness and can provide only incomplete access to spoken language. The myth that ASL inhibits the development of clear speech continues to be perpetuated, despite the fact that there is no data to support it. Those Deaf students who have access to ASL as well as to amplification routinely outperform those who use amplification only.
As a teacher of Deaf and hard of hearing children, I have clearly seen the benefits of the use of ASL the classroom. This was never as crystal clear as when a Sudanese refugee joined my class some years ago. ‘David’ had spent his first four years in a war zone and his next five in an Ethiopian refugee camp without electricity or running water, let alone accessible education. He came to us with virtually no intelligible language and was unable, after nine years of silence, to tolerate amplification of any kind. Without access to visual language, he would have remained illiterate, unable even to count. ASL was the lifeline David needed to decode the mysteries of language and the written word. He made two and a half years of progress in his first academic year.
ASL, our only uniquely American language, is a point of pride to the Deaf Community. And it should be a point of pride for every American.