LINGUIST List 7.1357

Mon Sep 30 1996

Disc: ASL

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Mikel Matto, Re: ASL
  2. Sherman Wilcox, ASL
  3. David Ganelin, Re: 7.1340 - ASL IS a real language!
  4. Dan & Alysse Rasmussen, ASL ... The Neverending Debate

Message 1: Re: ASL

Date: Fri, 27 Sep 1996 13:19:43 -0800
From: Mikel Matto <mikelmrosewood.his.ucsf.EDU>
Subject: Re: ASL
Regarding Glen Dolberg's discussion about ASL:

I would have to agree with your colleagues, Dr. Dolberg. In your
posting, you noted that "the three of us who teach linguistics do not
feel that learning ASL is more than half equal to learning a foreign
language"; this makes me wonder if perhaps you're confusing American
Sign Language with Signed English.

Signed English is just that; it is the English language translated
from the verbal to the visual-spatial. The syntax, morphology, and
agreement remains very similar to verbal English.

But American Sign Language is completely independent of English. It
does not use a Subject-Verb-Object structure, nor follow any of the
syntax of English. The morphology is an entirely different entity.
It is not "miming" as many people assume; in fact, only a small
percentage of signed words bear any visual resemblance to their

ASL is a rich and beautiful language of its own right. Gaullaudet
University is a well respected university in Washington D.C. in which
ASL is the primary means of academic communication for the campus, as
a majority of the students are Deaf.

Every rule that linguists have deemed appropriate for determining a
language's individuality has been applied successfully to ASL. As
you're in Stockton, you may wish to contact or visit the Fremont
School for the Deaf, which has one of the best reputations nationally
for their education of deaf students; if you're lucky, you might be
able to visit an ASL poetry recital or theatre group.

Learning ASL is less "than half equal to learning a foreign language"?
Hardly. In the traditional sense, learning ASL is as difficult as
learning any second langauge. And when you find that you must also
learn the rules for representing morphology and tense in a
visual-spatial sense, you may understand the complexity and richness
of ASL.

Before your college makes their decision regarding ASL, I would
STRONGLY suggest reading a book about the language to fully learn the
complexity. Dr. Oliver Sachs had assumed that ASL was mimed English
as well... until he studied the language and approached the deaf
community. "Seeing Voices", I believe it's called. It's worth a
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: ASL

Date: Fri, 27 Sep 1996 15:57:57 MDT
From: Sherman Wilcox <>
Subject: ASL
Glen A. Dolberg wrote:

>In our view learning ASL is perhaps more
>like learning a dialect of English, instead of like learning a
>completely new foreign language. 
>We NEED input from the rest of the community of linguists. Are the
>three of us wrong? 

To jump to the chase: yes, the three of you are wrong.

I'm sure many others will add the details of the story. I'll direct
you to three places directly related to the question of whether ASL
should be accepted as a foreign language:

(1) "Academic Acceptance of American Sign Language." Linstok Press 

(2) "Learning to See: Teaching American Sign Language as a Second 
Language." S. Wilcox & P. Wilcox (1996, Gallaudet University Press).

(3) My WWW page devoted to this topic:
(follow the links to ASL as a foreign language)

Sherman Wilcox
Associate Professor
Dept. of Linguistics
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131
(505) 277-6353 v/tty
(505) 277-6355 fax
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 3: Re: 7.1340 - ASL IS a real language!

Date: Sat, 28 Sep 1996 08:55:31 PDT
From: David Ganelin <>
Subject: Re: 7.1340 - ASL IS a real language!

Regarding Glen's query about the validity of ASL as a fully-realized

I'm certainly no expert, having taken only one semester of ASL, but I
found it to be a fascinating, expressive language with almost NO
relationship to English. The fact that English was the L1 of most
(but not all) of the students in the class, and, therefore, was used
to explain and expedite learning, has nothing to do with ASL's status.
One could just as easily teach ASL to a class of Hmong speakers, or to
a a multilingual class using no supportive spoken language at all,
given a willing class and a patient instructor. To regard ASL as a
dialect of English is to classify Deaf culture as one more of the many
subcultures within American society; while this is certainly not
necessarily pejorative, it does exhibit a lack of understanding of the
uniqueness of Deaf culture.

In ASL, there is NO one-to-one correspondence with English vocabulary,
and there are SIGNIFICANT structural differences in almost every area
of syntax you could think of (word order, inflection, etc.). If many
pragmatic considerations seem to parallel those in English, this is
only because we're limiting our discussion to the use and instruction
of ASL inside of English-speaking countries; I'd be willing to bet
that those would change radically with the surrounding environment.

I could go on, but I'd rather leave that to members of the Deaf
community. To that end, I've forwarded your original message to some
Deaf associates in the hopes that they will also present their
reactions on this topic.

David Ganelin

* David Ganelin <> Drop back five yards and punt. *
* Instructor - The English Language Center, Westwood, LA, CA *
* VP - LingSoc (The Linguistics Society at CSU - Northridge) *
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 4: ASL ... The Neverending Debate

Date: Fri, 27 Sep 1996 09:23:24 EDT
From: Dan & Alysse Rasmussen <>
Subject: ASL ... The Neverending Debate
Dr. Glen A. Dolberg	

>I would like very much to receive opinions (nation-wide, world-wide)
>on the question of to what extent we in the professional world of
>linguists should equate learning ASL with learning any foreign

The best place to go for a linguistic perspective of ASL and other SLs
would be the Sign Language Linguistics List
<>. They may even have a page on the web.

I did my undergraduate work in linguistics at the University of
Wisconsin -- Madison. In addition to our regular studies in
linguistics (phonology, morphology, syntax, etc) we were required to
take 3 years of 1 foreign/second language, 2 years of another, and 1
of a third. At least one of these had to be non-Indo-European.

I choose Spanish, ASL, and Chinese (and a bunch of others, too :-).
If you want the whole list, you can check me out at:

In comparing my personal as well as professional feelings about
learning these 2 non-Indo-European languages, I'd have to say that
teaching styles aside ASL was the more difficult. Chinese, by
comparison, was a breeze!

ASL, at first, seemed overly simplistic. But as I continued my
studies, I began to realize that it was __so totally alien__ that it
carried a false sense of security and recognition which made it seem
easier at the beginning levels. It wasn't until you got out in the
real world and actually realized that it wasn't as simplistic as it

There were rules, back then, no one even knew how to begin to express.
Rules for turn taking, rules for interrupting, rules for maintaining a
conversation, rules for getting attention, rules for which kinds (and
how much) information must be shared within the community -- and in
what order, rules for ... heck! rules that we hearing individuals,
firmly based in our oral culture, didn't even know we were breaking
left and right.

Then, of course, there were the grammatical rules: topic/comment
stucture, facial grammar (y/n-q, wh-q, rhetorical-q, etc), use of
classifiers (verbal, like the AmerIndian ones, not like Chinese) that
we were beginning to recognize, but still hadn't quite gotten a handle
on because ASL as a minority language living within the framework of a
majority language requires it's speakers, culturally, to meet the
communicative needs of the dominant society as much as possible (code

Of course, there were problems with phonology, too. At the time I
began my studies, only 3 of the 5+ parameters used to define phonemes
had been discovered.

And then the subtle problem with iconicity -- "girl, tie the bonnet
strings", "boy, tip the hat", "tree, shake the leaves". Only problem
is, not all sign languages use those images. Sign languages, by their
very nature, tend to prefer valid pictural images. This, in turn,
leads to many signs which appear representational rather than
symbolic. But they are, in most cases, simply a culturally defined
aspect of the things they represent. Other Sign Languages may focus
on different aspects.

And, within ASL itself, there are dialect/regional variations. For
example, the standard ASL sign for SCHOOL is hands clapping on a
perpendicular plane (90 degrees rotation). The Black ASL sign for
school is the BOOK handshape with sides of pinkie fingers/hand
clapping together. (Make the gesture for praying, hands flat
together, move the thumbs to the outside as if opening a book, then
clap the sides of your hands together.)

>Currently on my campus (San Joaquin Delta College, Stockton, CA) this
>question is being hotly debated and the three of us who teach
>linguistics do not feel that learning ASL is more than half equal to
>learning a foreign language. In our view learning ASL is perhaps more
>like learning a dialect of English, instead of like learning a
>completely new foreign language. Our colleagues in other disciplines
>do not agree with us, and obviously,because they teach all of the
>other subjects, they far outnumber us.

If ASL is properly taught (meaning by someone who knows the difference
between ASL and Signed English and all the degrees of contact
languages in between) ASL is a true "foreign" langauge. In fact, it
is __so__ different that it presents many unique features which make
it extremely complex for oral/aural speakers.

I've always felt that to offer ASL in a 3 or 4 hour a week course is a
major disservice to the students we expect to function in ASL.
Chinese, when I took it required 3 hours of lecture, 5 of "small group
lab", and, according to our instructor, another 10 of "cassette lab".
Those were Dr Chen's "bare minimums." ASL needs that much and more if
you want to reach the same level of competency.

>We NEED input from the rest of the community of linguists. Are the
>three of us wrong?

If you want my honest opinion, yes :-)

But then again, I freely admit to being prejudice since I use English,
ASL, and Spanish on a daily basis. What I do see is that each
functions in a completely different and individually unique manner.

I can use ASL's normal visual/gestural "mode" to express myself in
English or Spanish (but it sure looks weird to a native ASL signer).

I can use English and Spanish's oral/aural "mode" to express myself in
ASL (eyebrows up for topic comment markers, left & right sides of body
for comparison & contrast markers, eyebrows up head tilted back and to
one side for rhetorical question marker, and a strong assertive nod
for the final). It would look/sound something like:

"English, Spanish, talk index left topic; ASL express-ASL index right
topic; compare those two talk index left topic/comment cancel; ASL
signs index right topic/comment transfer to index left topic; happen
rhetorical question? odd assertion"

 ... which, if you've read this far, looks/sounds even wierder yet!
It's really difficult to express the visual 3 dimensional aspects of
any visual langauge in a liniar plane ... although there are quite a
few people who are determined :-) to impose a written form onto ASL
... reminds me of missionary zeal -- makes me a bit nervous, too.
Still, if you're interested, there's a hot debate on this very topic
going on at the Sign Language Linguists List right now.

I have some pages (mostly rough notes and a few articles) posted to my
web page about some of the "funner" parts of ASL. (I'm particularly
pleased with my ASL story.) If you'd like to take a look see, feel

I also have several links to some of the better know linguistic sites
for ASL research (Sherman Wilcox, Gallaudet University, Karen
Nakamura's ASL resources page, etc)

Alysse .... more than .02, I fear.

Alysse Rasmussen
Lake Sumter Community College
Leesburg, Florida
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue