Yes, Sign Language is a “Real Language”; On American Sign Language (ASL) and Academic Language Credits

Author’s note: In Deaf culture, the capital letter D is used to indicate cultural deafness. The little d indicates deafness on its own, as more of a medical term. Sometimes, d/Deaf is written. I find it awkward to write d/Deaf every single time. I tend to use the capital D when I feel it is appropriate. 

September 29th was Erev Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and follows Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is a time of celebration, reflection, atonement and fasting.

I have been able to get more and more in touch with my Jewish roots because of increased access in my life now that I am at the University. It is amazing that it has taken this long, but I am able to request sign language interpreters for Jewish services on campus, and for any other related events. It is not perfect, and it is an ongoing process for people to learn how to set up Deaf access, but it is more access than I have ever had in the past. This is partly because I never knew it was my right to even ask for it. This Yom Kippur, I reflected on the barriers to language I have experienced in my life, and how much this has affected me, and others like me.

Having access to language can really open your life to possibilities. For many years, I did not have real access to language at all. Growing up, like many Deaf people, I was raised to be purely oral. This means that I was given hearing aids, not taught sign language, not involved in Deaf culture, mainstreamed into a hearing school, and had to take years of speech pathology in order to be able to passably speak out loud. It’s a common experience among Deaf and hard of hearing people, and it is sometimes referred to as oralism. So yes, I was taught a language, which was English. However, English as a spoken language does not work as well for me as Sign Language does. I always had to strain to speak and hear, and it never felt easy or natural. This caused anxiety, depression, exhaustion, stress, shame, and isolation. It is fine to teach deaf children how to speak and read lips. There is nothing wrong with that. I am grateful for the wonderful speech pathologist I had growing up. However, the problem lays in keeping sign language completely out of this education, and not giving someone the option to just be Deaf and to develop their identity as a Deaf person.

Image of a toddler holding a doll, learning to sign with an adult teaching them.

Deafness is considered to be a shameful defect that we are taught to hide. Many Deaf people who are raised to only be oral grow up feeling shame and embarrassment at how our voices are different, how we stumble over certain words and letters, how we cannot hear the TV or radio, and many other things. The reason we feel this shame is because hearing and speech are emphasized as superior, and we are never going to be perfect at hearing or talking aloud. This makes people feel defective. Also, we are not given access to understand what is happening when sound is involved, so we are often isolated and embarrassed for that reason.

It is a travesty that so many Deaf people grow up not knowing that Deaf culture is a beautiful thing, or that it even exists. It pains me that many Deaf and disabled people in the world are not aware that they have a culture because able-bodied people have kept it from them. Able-bodied and hearing people are the ones who are largely writing policy and deciding the fate of everyone else, so things either don’t change or are very slow to change.

The problem is, since hearing people do not know anything about Deaf Culture, they assume. One of the biggest assumptions hearing people make about Deaf Culture is that sign language is not a “real language”, but just word-for-word translation of spoken language. Of course hearing people would know, right? Because hearing people are the largest users of sign language in the world. WRONG. The vast majority of hearing people do not use sign language, do not know any Deaf people, and have never spent time in a d/Deaf space. 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. My parents had pretty much zero experience with Deaf culture. The only hearing loss a lot of hearing people are familiar with is the hearing loss their grandparents developed later in life. I am here to tell you that this is not the same thing as growing up Deaf.

It is exceedingly rare for me to meet a hearing person that is familiar with basic concepts of Deafness, unless that hearing person is involved in the Disability Rights community or has studied disability studies in school. So why do hearing people continue to create policy around d/Deafness?

Many hearing people are astounded that I can talk. This happens about once a week, no exaggeration. I encounter a new person who has never met a Deaf person before, and they do not expect me to be able to speak. I find this ironic, since it is the hearing world that has consistently denied my access to cultural Deaf language, and has forced upon me a language that is not optimal for my needs. When a hearing person discovers that I can speak, what usually follows is: “How can you be Deaf if you can talk?” News flash: Deaf people can talk. Some of us choose not to, some of us struggle with it, some of us speak more than others. There are many ways to be d/Deaf.

Because hearing people assume so much about deafness, they have decided that sign language is not a “real language”, and that it should not count in college as a language credit. This causes all kinds of problems for Deaf people.

I have written about my experience growing up and coming to accept and understand my Deaf identity here . What I have not spent much time writing about is my experience as a Deaf person in college. It has been too painful to revisit. But I need to, because the problems I have are just continuing for younger generations, and it is totally unnecessary and a huge barrier to the success of the Deaf community.

When I transferred to CUNY Hunter College in New York for undergrad in 2005, the counselor for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing students (who was hearing and did not sign) told me that I was “not allowed” to take a language, and that my ASL language classes taken in high school and community college would not count towards a language credit. Why? Sign was not considered a “foreign” language, and it did not have a culture.  I was devastated. Also, since hearing people think that Deaf people cannot talk, or that it is too much trouble for them, this meant that I was not allowed to take a foreign language at the school, either. Instead, I would have to make up these language credits with something called “cultural classes”. Four of them.

So, after being told I had no culture and being denied the ability to study a language, or to use my own second language for the credit, I instead was required to take classes on “culture”. Some hearing person had decided what “culture” entailed, and disability and Deafness were not a part of it.

Now, I love learning and I love school, but I was not thrilled that I had to take four extra classes and spend a longer time in undergrad due to this issue. I was 24 years old at this time, and I did not know my rights. It made me very sad that I was not allowed to study a language, not even Latin, which is barely spoken aloud anyway. This is an example of why stereotypes that Deaf and disabled people are stupid or not capable of achieving exist. We are segregated from a lot of things and not even allowed to take the same classes, but instead made to do some other bullshit, and it takes us longer to graduate for that reason.

Some hearing people might think, well, that’s how it goes, there is no way to teach a foreign language to a Deaf person. WRONG. This is where understanding Deaf access comes in. I should be able to learn any language I want to learn. All I need is access. If I want to learn Russian, for example, I would take a class and have a sign language interpreter who knew Russian and English work with one who knew English and ASL. I would actually be learning a lot more than just spoken Russian that way, I would be picking up Russian sign, too (but, you know; Deaf people cannot talk and are bad at learning languages *eye roll*). A reputable sign language agency could instruct someone on how to set this access up, and in a city like New York, where my undergrad was, you can bet that there are Russian sign language interpreters. Also, I have said this before: IT IS THE LAW TO DO THIS. DEAF ACCESS IS A FEDERAL LAW. 

So, is sign language a “real language”? How about a little primer:

Sign language is not universal. Many hearing people assume that it is. Sign language is different in every country, and it is different in each English-speaking country too. British Sign is different from American sign, and so on. Blowing your mind? That is because you probably think that sign language is word-for-word translation of spoken language, and is based on spoken language. It’s not.

In the U.S., there are different types of sign language. Some Deaf people use ASL (short for American Sign Language) in a style that is considered more culturally Deaf. People who grew up using sign language and/or have other Deaf people in their family use ASL more, but the style (dialect) can differ from person to person. Sign in the U.S. differs by race, class, and region. There is “English” style sign, which is what I primarily use, which is more about words and is structured differently that ASL.

However, many American signs are based in French sign language. This is an example of how ASL is a different language with its own origin and history. Like every language in the world, there is a history and a culture around sign, and there are different styles and dialects of it, too.

Sign language is conceptual. Sign language is about concepts, and concepts can be described visually. This is why sign language lends it self well to theory. Karl Marx, for example, can translate easily into ASL. I think that many areas of study could be enhanced by ASL, and that ASL can support communication and understanding in a variety of fields. Limiting language to just speaking words does not allow for the best experience in understanding or producing knowledge. I feel that spoken languages based only on words can be extremely limiting. However, spoken language continues to be preferred and exalted over sign. The reason? Social constructs around Deafness and disability as defects that need to be “fixed”, and have nothing to offer, and ideas that sign language is somehow lesser than other languages. 

So, not only do hearing administrations at certain colleges deny Deaf students access to learn a foreign language, therefore hindering their advancement in academia and their development as humans in the world, but then they’ll refuse to take American Sign Language credits. This makes no sense at all. Can you understand how this just hinders Deaf people from achievement? It also prevents hearing people from learning sign, since sign language classes are not going to fulfill their language requirements. If more hearing people learned sign language, then there would be much more inclusion and access in this world. Some colleges accept ASL credits; many still do not. Things are changing, but more colleges need to get on board.

It is old fashioned and quite honestly repulsive, audist and ableist to treat sign language this way. Deaf people are not the only ones to benefit from sign, either. Many disabled people use it or could benefit from using it, including babies and children. You don’t have to have disability or be Deaf to benefit from sign.

There is a rich, vast, storied history of Deaf culture in this, and other countries. There is a culture of Deaf people that is very different from hearing culture. There are a lot of books, documentaries, journal articles, and more that surround Deaf Studies. There is a lot to learn about it.

Sign Language is a language. Sign Language has a culture. Sign Language has many dialects. Sign language is different all over the world. It is time for this to be understood and accepted. It is time for universities to treat sign language as a REAL LANGUAGE and to make it count as a language credit. It is time for hearing people to understand how sign language works before they make policies and rules around it. It is time to step out of the past and stop with the isolation of Deaf and disabled people. It is time for full inclusion. Nothing About Us Without Us. Do not make policies around a marginalized group when you are not a part of it. Do not shut people out of accessing life, the world, careers and education. Include sign language and include Deaf culture in college curriculum.

For more information, check out this video. It does not have audio description, and for that I apologize. I will work on finding one that does.