SASL Newsletter - Fall 2016 Issue

The Power of ASL A Society Supporting Language, Literacy, and Perfo rming Arts in th e Signed Modality Fall 2016 A Newsletter of the Society for American Sign Language Issue 3 By  Patrick  Boudreault,  Gallaudet  University     The number of American Sign Language (ASL) learners in the United States has grown from a small number in the early 1990s to 109,575 higher education students in the fall of 2013 (Modern Language Association, 2014). This proliferation is notable, and reflects the interest and openness of society toward signed language. However, upon closer examination, this seemingly positive growth in reality consists mostly of hearing students. Yet the number of Deaf children learning signed language has dramatically decreased, and the number of Deaf education programs and Deaf schools has dwindled as well. Is the growth of ASL merely an illusion? Should ASL really be considered a robust language with an estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million users? A considerable number of signers are second language (L2) users (recreational learners, professionals, and interpreters) who learned ASL later in life. According to Compton (2014), approximately 3-4% of ASL users are categorized as core signers, translating to roughly 15,000 to 20,000 individuals. Core signers are those who learn ASL from their parents (like any first language, or L1, learner would for any other language) — such as Deaf children who have Deaf parents. However, more than 90% of Deaf children are born to hearing parents, most of who do not sign. This skewed proportion of Deaf signers and hearing signers is cause for concern. The measurement of intergenerational transmission, as based on the UNESCO Language Vitality and Endangerment framework (2003), shows that ASL is considered “safe” given its use by all generations. However, the criterion of language vitality proposed by UNESCO is murky and even incompatible with signed language, since there is a small percentage of users who learned signed language from their parents, compared with other spoken minority languages. This percentage becomes even smaller if we strictly define “native users” as those born to Deaf parents; if we broaden it to include primary users who acquired sign language prior to five years of age (such as by attending a bilingual Deaf school), this number increases slightly. Perhaps all Deaf signers, regardless of age of acquisition, could be considered heritage language users even if language transmission is not passed directly from their biological parents or family members. While praising the proliferation of L2 learners, such learners typically learn in closed classroom environments with a couple of Deaf teachers, if the students are fortunate enough, across several courses (Continued to page 3) The Power of ASL 1 Fall 2016 – Issue 3