Why ASL should fulfill language requirements

Danielle Zukowski

Grand Valley State University requires that all students seeking a Bachelor of Arts degree demonstrate third semester proficiency in a language. There are three ways to fulfill this. Advanced Placement credit for foreign languages from high school can transfer over. Or if you already speak a foreign language, you can take a Language Placement Exam given by the university. The third option would be to enroll in one of the 10 languages offered. These include Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Russian and Spanish (Hebrew and Polish are no longer offered).

In 2010, GVSU began offering American Sign Language (ASL) classes. Last year, an American Sign Language Interpreting (B.S.) program was created as an emphasis option for Allied Health Science majors. It is not part of the modern language department and does not fulfill the Bachelor of Arts language requirement. Why is that?

There are many misconceptions about sign language. Firstly, ASL is only one form of sign language. There are many different types throughout the world such as French, German, Italian, Icelandic, Danish, Pakistani, Nicaraguan, etc. These sign languages are not just symbols for an associated spoken language. They are self-sufficient languages.

They are more than communication, which is animalistic and distinctive from human language. ASL is infinitely creative, learned in speech communities and can displace time – therefore, they can’t be deemed merely a means of communication. This would denote a sense of inferiority, which is completely unsupported. Lack of recognition for the validity of this language prompts discrimination of its users.

Despite being nonverbal, ASL shares many qualities of spoken language. For one, ASL has parts of speech such as nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on – just like other languages. It has its own grammar system.

It is not just signed English. That is something different known as Signed Exact English (SEE), which is not a unique language. It has morphology, which is the study of the formation and inflection of words. The syntactical structure seems to resemble Subject Verb Object (SVO). It doesn’t demonstrate traditional phonology because it isn’t spoken, but it does use specific hand shapes or signs that must be formed a certain way. Movement, space and number of hands used are some considerations in orientation.

Similar to spoken languages, signs do not always have an identifiable association with the word they represent. The signified and the signifier have an arbitrary relationship. Although sometimes the sign makes sense for the word – like the sign for cat, that imitates whiskers. This is true for English as well. Onomatopoeic words resemble the things they represent by mimicking the sound but, for the most part, words are random.

The Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center of Gallaudet University created a list of the varying state legislation regarding ASL. The listed law for Michigan only concerns inclusion as a high school foreign language credit. Alabama, Colorado, Maryland and a handful of other states are paving the way for linguistic acceptance in America by recognizing the validity of ASL and offering it as a foreign language at universities. Why hasn’t GVSU followed suit?