Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Ideological Barriers to American Sign Language: Unpacking Linguistic Resistance

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Ideological Barriers to American Sign Language: Unpacking Linguistic Resistance

Article excerpt

ASL, as linguistically defined, has nowhere near the power of English for receptive OR expressive purposes. ASL has its own merits, some of them outshining spoken language, but anywhere near as powerful as English for education, commerce, and all-around communication purposes it most certainly is not.

-Stewart, "Debunking the Bilingual/Bicultural Snow Job in the American Deaf Community"

THE NATURE AND STATUS of American Sign Language (ASL), although long settled as linguistic matters (see Hoffmeister 2008; Liddell 1980, 2003; Lillo-Martin 1991; Lucas i99°J Neidle et al. 2000; Sandler and Lillo-Martin 2006; Valli, Lucas, and Mulrooney 2005), remain popular topics subject to serious misunderstandings and misrepresentations among nonlinguists, as the opening epigraph demonstrates. As Ronald Wardhaugh has noted about language in general:

Language plays an important role in the h ves of all of us and is our most distinctive human possession. We might expect, therefore, to be well-informed about it. The truth is we are not. Many statements we believe to be true about language are likely as not false. Many of the questions we concern ourselves with are either unanswerable and therefore not really worth asking or betray a serious misunderstanding of the nature of language. Most of us have learned many things about language from others, but generally the wrong things. (1999, viii)

Unfortunately, although perhaps not surprisingly, such ignorance is even more true of ASL. Although there have been significant advances with respect to the status and use of ASL in general in the United States, there also have often been backlashes to such developments, typically manifested in controversy related to beliefs about the nature of ASL as a "real" language or as an "appropriate" language for study. This has been the case, for instance, in four particular areas: efforts to achieve official recognition of ASL, early identification of hearing impairment, the rise of ASL-E nglish bilingual/bicultural education programs, and the teaching of ASL as a foreign language in educational institutions. In this article, the debate about the status of ASL is addressed as an example of ideological beliefs that impact linguistic judgments and policies. Also discussed are the major challenges to the status of ASL with respect to formal legislative recognition, its utility as a medium of instruction, and its status as a legitimate "foreign" language. I argue that these challenges are both empirically and conceptually problematic. Further, I suggest that resistance to ASL is grounded in large part in a misunderstanding of the nature of human language and of the nature, structure, and history of natural sign languages in general and ASL in particular.

The Nature of Linguistic Ideology

The term ideology is a complex one that has many different and sometimes contradictory meanings (see Pratte 1977). At its core, however, it refers to the beliefs and attitudes of an individual as a member of a group. Thus, ideology is concerned with ideals, concepts, and the like held, either implicitly or explicitly, by a group or a community. This does not, of course, mean that all members of the group share the belief or attitude, merely that it is commonly held in the group. "Linguistic ideology" or "language ideology," in turn, refer to beliefs and attitudes that are specifically concerned with language and linguistic issues (see Reagan 1985). Ideological beliefs and attitudes are important in maintaining the status quo. As Norman Fairclough notes:

Institutional practices which people draw upon without thinking often embody assumptions which directly or indirectly legitimize existing power relations. Practices which appear to be universal and commonsensical can often be shown to originate in the dominant class or dominant bloc, and to have become naturalized. Where types of practice, and in many cases types of discourse, function in this way to sustain unequal power relations . …

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