WHAT IS ASL?
American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual-gestural language, which is the native signed language of Deaf people in the United States and most of Canada. Deaf communities all over the world have either originated their own signed language or have incorporated aspects of other signed languages. Some of the vocabulary of ASL today was derived from French Sign Language (LSF) brought to the U.S. by renowned Deaf educator Laurent Clerc in the early 1800’s. The integration of LSF with the existing indigenous signed language has evolved into the modern ASL.
Signed languages are borne out of the insatiable drive to communicate by Deaf persons. These languages develop and evolve over many years, experiencing iterations which refine the language with each successive generation. Typically these signed languages are not dependent on the socio-geographic movements of spoken languages. For example, ASL is used in Puerto Rico while Spanish is the spoken language. Although English is spoken in both England and the United States, the former uses British Sign Language (BSL) which differs greatly from ASL. Also, Mexican Sign Language (LSM) differs from the many
varied signed languages of Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America.
ASL has its own vocabulary of signs which is essentially non-dependent on the spoken English language. Some have mistakenly concluded that American Sign Language is a complex form of pantomime, a “picture” or “conceptual” language. Though ASL employs the face, body, hands, and surrounding space effectively, the majority of signs bear little or no resemblance to the thoughts they convey. For example, the sign conveying the idea of “make” uses both hands in a fist handshape, with one fist on top of the other with a twisting motion. Though common, this sign does not clearly depict it’s meaning to a non-signer; it is non-iconic.
ASL also employs a unique grammatical structure separate from English. For instance, the topic of an ASL sentence is generally stated first, followed by a comment about it. Temporal sequencing, ordering things as they occurred in time, also is an important linguistic feature.
Many facial expressions also serve grammatical functions, such as helping to distinguish a question from a command, a conditional phrase, or a simple statement. The visual nature of ASL has allowed it to develop these and many other unique features.
When studying ASL, one is impressed by the subtle complexities and richness of expression. There is not a topic, thought, nor idea that cannot be expressed with ASL.
LEARNING ASL AS A SECOND LANGUAGE
There is no doubt that acquiring ASL through childhood interaction allows for the greatest fluency. Growing up with ASL, or any other language, can result in a native fluency that is difficult to achieve if learning ASL later in life. However, can adults successfully master ASL as a second language?
It was once thought that the older you are, the more difficult it would be to learn a second language, such as ASL. While age is definitely a factor, most linguists now agree that given the right circumstances, an adult can gain mastery of ASL.
In his book, Life With Two Languages, Francois Grosjean reports that “success in mastering a second language depends not so much on intellectual capacity or language aptitude as on the learner’s attitude toward the other linguistic group and his or her willingness to identify with that group. To this should be added the motivation and quite simply, the need, to communicate with members of the group . . . thus the psychosocial factors that surround language acquisition are of primary importance . . . Other factors, such as the critical period, language lateralization, language aptitude, and intelligence, play a lesser role.”
“Willingness to identify with that group:” A hearing adult interested in learning ASL may feel it impossible to identify with Deaf people. However, an ability to understand and relate to the cultural experience of Deaf people will greatly contribute to one’s eventual proficiency in ASL. When an adult has “motivation to communicate” with Deaf persons, these efforts are rewarded, especially when the emphasis is placed on comprehension. Such struggle and effort put forward helps one to gradually think more and more in ASL.
The “need to communicate” with Deaf people may be due to a work situation requiring such communication, having a Deaf child, or developing a friendship with a Deaf person. Like motivation, this need becomes a driving force in the quest for successful communication. It can be said that if communication is the goal, then with sufficient exposure and interaction, ASL will emerge. To what extent it will emerge is dependent on the above factors, not the least of which is time, opportunity, amount of exposure, as well as immersion and interaction.
How malleable can an adult be in their learning of ASL? Because successful learning of another language requires that one thinks in that language, an adult’s mind must be malleable enough to make that change in thought processing. It may be that the window of malleability may diminish as one ages. However, each person has their own ‘open-window period’ where their minds may be just malleable enough to learn that additional language. Gardner, R. and Lambert, W. (1972) Attitudes and motivation in Second Language Learning. (Newbury House, Rowley, MA). Grosjean, Francois (1982) Life With Two Languages. (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA)
WHERE TO TAKE CLASSES
There are a number of ASL interpreter training programs in Maine and New England. Locally, the interpreter training program at the University of Southern Maine (USM) is currently offering a variety of coursework in ASL and interpreter development.