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The History of a Language: American Sign Language

The History of a Language: American Sign Language American Sign Language (ASL) is an intricate language using complicated hand gestures mixed with very animated facial expressions and body posturing. It is the primary form of communication among the deaf and hard of hearing in North America. In these modern times it is not uncommon to see two deaf people communicating in sign language or colleges teaching ASL as a form of foreign language. But ASL or deaf people in general weren’t always so openly accepted in society.

The deaf community was shunned, but despite the way the rest of society treated them deaf culture flourished. Before contemporary times, the deaf, or any sort of physically handicapped weren’t treated very kindly. In fact, in 300’s B. C. Aristotle, the Greek Philosopher, declared that “It is impossible to learn without the ability to hear… those who are born deaf all become senseless and incapable of reason”(Sharner). And in 345 A. D. St. Augustine preaches to “early Christians that deaf children are a sign of God’s anger at the sins of their parents” (Sharner).

As a result deaf people were seen as un-teachable, no parents would allow their children to marry to a deaf person, they couldn’t buy property or go out in public without a guardian. The law didn’t even consider them people. But in 1501, Geronimo Cardano openly challenged the almost 2000 year old belief set by of Aristotle and St. Augustine’s teachings. Cardano claimed that learning does not require hearing; he was able to communicate and teach his deaf son using a ‘code of symbols'(“Deaf History)”. He was the first to prove that deaf people have the ability to reason and learn using signed communication and writing.

Not too long after, others were inspired to teach the deaf as well. Juan Pablo de Bonet a Spanish priest, studied Leon’s methods as well as using his own methods of writing, speech reading and a anual alphabet (using corresponding hand shapes for the letters of the alphabet) to teach the deaf as well as publish the first well known “writes the first well-known book of manual alphabetic signs for the deaf in 1620″(“ASL Timeline”). But there still wasn’t an organized system of teaching the deaf, or a standardized system to communicate for that matter.

However in the 1760’s, the French Priest, Charles Michel De L’epee, “founded the first public school for the deaf… using a system of standardized signs and finger spelling” (“Deaf Timeline”). Deaf children all across the ountry came to attend the school, the students brought the signs they learned back to their neighborhoods. As a result the language that L’eppe used became the standard sign language for the country known as Old French Sign Language. De L’eppe helped create a bridge between the hearing and deaf world and is often times considered the father of sign language.

Before the creation of ASL, there was no form of education for deaf children in America, so the parents were forced to send their children to private academies that specialized in deaf education in Europe. In 181 5 Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, an American minister decided to learn abroad to tudy the European methods of the deaf. … he was introduced to the Abbe Sicard in several months studying educational methods as well as signs, he was ready to . In America the French sign language was enlarged and return to America modified, eventually becoming the basis of the American language of signs.

In Hartford Connecticut, 1817, the first permanent school for the deaf was established… By 1857 there was 19 schools for the deaf across the United States (Riekenhof 6). ” In 1864 the Gallaudet College, world’s only deaf college, was established. By 1876, every deaf school in America taught ASL. The schools for the deaf gathered together larger numbers of deaf people than ever before, placed them in communal living situations, and taught them not only formally about the world at large but informally about themselves…

They encountered the surprising knowledge that they had a history and an identity shared by many others. From this common language and common experience, they began to create an American deaf community (Baynton 4). Sheryl Arcelao, a deaf sign language teacher remarked that, “ASL is a part of me, Just like English is a part of you. The rest of my family doesn’t know ASL so I couldn’t express yself to them, which made communicating really frustrating. But when I’m with deaf people, all the barriers come crashing down and I Just feel at home (Arcelao). However an “a group of reformers, in the late eighteen hundreds [threatened] to unmake that community and culture. Central to that project was a campaign to eliminate the use of sign language and replace it with the exclusive use of lip reading and speech, which was known as ‘oralism. ‘(Baynton 4). ” Oralism was added to the education system, but this didn’t satisfy the Oralists. The reformers intended to eradicate the use of ASL entirely. The deaf community blatantly rejected their proposal, ASL was so intertwined with their life, how could they Just stop?

Alas, the deaf community’s cries were ignored, ironically having little influence in their own educational system. The abolition of sign language was quite a success, oralism was favored more as time went on and by WW1 the great majority of students were taught exclusively without sign language. In 1960 Dr. William C. Stokoe, Jr. , a professor at the Gallaudet University changed everyone’s views of Sign Language and proposed instead that “ASL was, in fact, a fully formed human language in the same ense as spoken languages like English…

Stokoe’s published works won wide acceptance in the linguistic community and ultimately among educators of the deaf, such that ASL is now widely recognized as an appropriate language of instruction for deaf students. ” (“William”). Stokoe’s tireless work ultimately led to a greater awareness of ASL and provided critical support in it’s explosion of popularity, it even led to teaching ASL in high schools ancd colleges. Stokoe’s research was also a major consideration when a “Report to Congress on oral deaf education… concludes that [Oralism] has been a ‘dismal failure'(“Deaf History).

With the issue of this report the age-old battle of oralism versus sign language was finally put to rest. Those who advocated for oralism thought the deaf as an inferior race. Oralists were totally unsympathetic and completely ignorant to the deaf community and how difficult it would be to learn how to speak without being able to hear. Their ideas were based off of delusions that all deaf people could lead the same lives as hearing people, not realizing that signing lead to the life that they were dreaming of. Their goal had good intentions, they wanted to homogenize deaf and hearing people by having the deaf ppressing the minorities.

Sign has been around for quite a long time, a sequence of events starting with the persecution of deaf people and sign language, the workings of Abbe De L’eppe, the creation of deaf schools around the world, the fight for manualism and the “Deaf President NOW’ movement. Through it all sign endured, and even reached the state of an “official” language. The future of ASL is promising as community continues to grow. ASL is now the third most used language in America. This gain in popularity will only continue to bridge the gap between the vibrant cultures of America.

Works Cited Arcelao, Sherylynn. Personal Interview. 2 October 2013. “ASL Timeline. ” DeafJam. N. p.. 6 Sep 2013 Web. Baynton, Douglas C. Forbidden Signs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Riekenhof, Lottie L. The Joy of Signing. USA: David Johnston,1963 Printing. Sharner, Wendy. “American Deaf Culture Historical Timeline. ” College of the Canyons, n. d. Web. 4 September 2013. “Timeline of Deaf History. ” Sound and Fury. PBS. n. d . Web. 6 Sep 2013.. “William C. Stokoe, Jr Founder of Sign Language Linguistics. ” Gallaudet University. n. p, May 4 2000, Web. 4 August 2013.

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