LINGUIST List 7.1424

Fri Oct 11 1996

Disc: ASL (American Sign Language)

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. Joseph Tomei, Re: 7.1357, Disc: ASL

Message 1: Re: 7.1357, Disc: ASL

Date: Fri, 04 Oct 1996 15:46:40 +0200
From: Joseph Tomei <>
Subject: Re: 7.1357, Disc: ASL
I have read with interest the discussion on ASL. While I agree
with the postings that defend the view of ASL as a foreign
language, I'd like to add a few considerations that haven't been

Arguing that something is a foreign language because of its
difference from English or whatever majority language is taught
or its difficulty in acquisition is only part of what should be
considered. If those were the sole criteria, Klingon would be

Part of what makes a 'language' eligible for college credit must
be the course's ability to help the student access the culture of
the speakers of that language. As some have noted, the deaf
community has a rich and vibrant culture, so it is certainly
eligible on those grounds.

The final consideration is does the course(s) as planned
introduce the student not only to the linguistic aspects of the
language but also to the culture? Or to put it another way, would
you regard a course that taught French, but gave the student no
knowledge about France or any francophone culture be sufficient
for college credit? There are courses like this, but they exist
not as foreign language courses per se, but as tools to allow
students to access research in languages they otherwise could

Because this is a list about Linguistics, perhaps it is not
appropriate to discuss those points here. But, as the original
posting asked:

>> to what extent in the professional world of
>>linguists should(we) equate learning ASL with learning any foreign

Because linguists are often drawn into debates about the value of
languages, it is important to note that these concerns exist.

To my mind, there are two approaches to this problem. The first
is top down, saying that the language should be taught, and then
coming up with a way to teach and evaluate the language. The
second is to evaluate which languages have the potential
resources that they can be taught and evaluated in a systematic

My own preference is for the first. The second approach, if taken
to its logical extreme, would result in a catch-22 that only
commonly taught languages would be taught because they are
commonly taught. The first, on the other hand, could conceivably
lead to everyone's dialect being taught for college credit.

It is useful to reflect that this situation parallels the
situation of minority/endangered languages at some
universities. The top down approach of 'we should teach this
language because it represents a unique cultural heritage' comes
in conflict with the bottom-up approach of 'we don't have
qualified people (in the eyes of the university) who can
teach/evaluate this language/' or 'the students who study it will
not be doing equivalent work to those in commonly taught

Though I would like to think that linguistics as a field would
support the top down argument, I'm not sure this is the case,
seeing that many linguistic programs are moving to requiring
fewer languages, or substituting subjects like statistics for
these requirements.

just 2 unearned pennies...

Joseph Tomei
Institute of Language and Culture Studies
Hokkaido University
N17 W8 Kita-ku, Sapporo 001 JAPAN
(81) (0)11-716-2111 x5387
fax (81) (0)11-736-2861
 'It would be a good idea'
 Mohandas Gandhi when asked what he thought of Western civilization

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