American Sign Language Teacher-Preparation Programs in the United States

By Jacobowitz, E. Lynn | Sign Language Studies, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

American Sign Language Teacher-Preparation Programs in the United States


Jacobowitz, E. Lynn, Sign Language Studies


THERE HAS NEVER BEEN a more important time in the history of American Sign Language (ASL), thanks to increased research and higher standards in the field of teaching the language. An ideological shift in academia, characterized by the linguistic, educational, and political recognition of ASL as a language, has paralleled the increased public interest in ASL as a second, foreign, or world language (Battison and Carter 1982; Wilcox 1990; Cokely 1992; Newell 1994; Lane, Hoffmeister, and Bahan 1996; Armstrong 1988; Cooper 1997; Belka 2000; Reagan 2000; Wallinger 2000) and as a first language and the language of instruction for Deaf children (Philip and Small 1991; Kuntze 1992; Lane 1992).

Even with the explosion of research on ASL and linguistics within the Deaf community, ASL supporters and advocates have been well aware of the long road ahead of them in improving the status of ASL instruction. Sherman Wilcox and Phyllis Wilcox wrote that "although ASL has a long and rich history in America, and scholarly research on ASL is in its fourth decade, ASL has been slow to garner any degree of status in the academic community" (1991, v). Regardless, the outlook on the future of ASL has been optimistic.

With the expansion of ASL programs, ASL research has grown since the early days of Stokoe's first findings in ASL linguistics. Research on ASL is more commonplace these days; linguistics programs have been founded at several universities; and more and more researchers are reinforcing Stokoe's initial conclusions about the linguistic status of ASL. The field of ASL research has expanded to include language acquisition, neurolinguistics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, anthropology, cognitive studies, pedagogical methods, and assessment of ASL skills (Friedman 1977; Battison 1978; Schlesinger and Namir 1978; Klima and Bellugi 1979; Liddell 1980; KyIe and WoIl 1983, 1985; Lucas 1989; Fischer and Siple 1990; Emmorey and Reilly 1995; Lillo-Martin 1991; Siple 1978; Siple and Fischer 1991; Wilcox 1992; Valli and Lucas 1995; Reagan 2000).

More recently, researchers and educators have been contending that ASL should be accorded equal status with foreign languages of instruction in the United States (Armstrong 1988; Wilcox 1992; Reagan 2000; Wallinger 2000). Lane states that "we must recognize the legitimacy of the sign language as a linguistic system and it should be accorded [the] same status as other languages" (1992, 46). The status of ASL as a language of study in high schools and universities is also on the rise. Wallinger asserts that teachers of foreign language are concerned about their own enrollments as ASL enrollments increase in Virginia (2000).

In the atmosphere of these climbing enrollments for ASL classes, Reagan suggests that students studying ASL are taking an "easy out" and avoiding the difficulties of learning a foreign language (2000, 48), mainly because they mistakenly believe that ASL is simply an extension of English and is easier to learn than another language such as Spanish. But students who sign up are often surprised at how difficult learning ASL actually is. Some believe that ASL is a fully iconic, picture language and that signs are transparent. If this were true, then students would be able to understand signs without much instruction. Recent research suggests that acquiring ASL may actually be somewhat more difficult than learning a foreign spoken language (Jacobs 1996; McKee and McKee 1992). Students are also often surprised to learn that they may need as much as nine years of continued learning to become proficient in ASL. Interestingly, Baker and Cokely suggested in 1980 that ASL not only is a language unrelated to English but is also a different modality, which makes it harder to learn.

Even though ASL isn't as easy to learn as it may seem at first, more and more students are enrolling in ASL courses at both the secondary and university levels and choosing ASL as a primary area of study. …

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