Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Capturing a Movement: Sign Language Preservation

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Capturing a Movement: Sign Language Preservation

Article excerpt

THE REAL AND SYMBOLIC value of sign language remains at the crux of Deaf people's identity. Since the inception of schools for deaf students in America, the use of sign language as the primary mode of classroom communication has enabled students' easy access to knowledge. It fits the visual needs of those who cannot hear and for whom reading lips proves cumbersome, if not impossible. Its pedagogical implications-the significance of sign language-transcends the classroom. Deaf people, then as now, have embraced it as the most obvious characteristic of their community. They have come to define themselves principally as a linguistic group. In many ways sign language frames the perceived and real differences between this group and mainstream society.

Emphasizing the liberating nature of sign language, which allows unhindered expression of ideas, Deaf people focus not on how they differ, but on what they hold in common with hearing people. This includes the ability to learn, share ideas and emotions, work, marry, and raise families-in short, to enjoy a full, enriching life. Given unfettered communication, leaders have posited, Deaf people are no longer people with a handicap. As leaders have noted, communication differences-and the discrimination this causes-pose the only real obstacle for Oeaf people. By protecting and promoting the use of sign language, the Deaf community seeks to reduce that barrier. At the same time, Deaf community members also proudly express their identity not only among each other but also to the outside world.

As oralism infiltrated deaf schools throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, Deaf leaders feared that students would create their own signs to communicate with each other, thus losing the historic tradition of experiencing "appropriate" eloquent signs from the masters, usually Deaf teachers. This communication breakdown isolated Deaf people from one another. It also hampered attempts by members of the community to instill specific cultural values in the next generation such as pride in their identity and appreciation for the language and folklore that united them.

Leaders in the Deaf world then devoted themselves to public campaigns, promising to protect sign language. Some exploited new technology, using motion pictures to capture their heritage language. The National Association of the Deaf, under the leadership of George Veditz, led one of the most overtly political and nationally recognized attempts to use film to preserve signs. Acknowledging the decrease in master signers, Veditz sought to exploit the talents of the remaining experts to raise a new generation of a signing elite. Others in the community used Deaf periodicals to express their advocacy. Rank-and-file Deaf citizens played an important role in sign language preservation, too, simply by using it as their primary mode of communication. Overt or subtle, intentional or instinctive, these diverse actions effectively complemented and fortified the goal of preserving and promoting sign language in America. This article examines some of the ways Deaf people have successfully maintained their heritage language and, in the process, strengthened their community.

Residential school administrators, fortunately, never widely adopted oralism in its most extreme form. The vast majority of residential schools for deaf students in the early twentieth century used variations of a combined method, which included signed communication in addition to speech and lipreading education.1 Chapel services, an established feature in most oral schools and virtually all combined schools, also consistently promoted sign language. Such services ultimately provided a link between Deaf students and the broader Deaf world. Deaf ministers preached to the students in sign language on a weekly basis. They also conducted Bible study classes and other programs conducted in signs.2 In order to promote religious observance, the schools required attendance at these events. …

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