language, gesture, ASL

Tue, 13 Feb 1996 14:39:40 -0500

Most people who study seriously ASL (I am not one of them), and certainly
speakers of ASL who grew up in deaf families where the parents also used ASL
and also went to ASL schools (hence, they learned ASL as a first language,
rather than suffered through oral schooling and families), would reject
outright the notion that signing is in some sense an earlier or more simple
mode of communication than orality. For Deaf people (that is, people who refer
to themselves as Deaf, with a capital D, rather than deaf with a lower case d,
thus signifying ethnicity rather than simply their lack of hearing), this type
of implication is at once a political statement that signals a history of
oppression from the hearing community. In this sense, and regardless of our
intentions in this discussion, we are unable from one perspective to divorce
our notions from political implications.

Furthermore, the notion that one can teach non-human primates ASL has been met
with some anger and frustration in the deaf community, as it again implies that
their mode of communication (ASL) is in some sense less sophisticated, nuanced,
etc., than oral speech.

I recall a recent posting that a colleague gave me from the physical anthro
list in which students who had only ONE university course in ASL could join a
project that claimed to be using ASL to communicate with chimps. Many deaf
people would suggest that this is analogous to trying to teach a chimp--or even
a person--another language, such as Spanish or Iatmul or whatever, based on
only having taken one university course in it. I believe that this was
recently critiqued in the book Aping Language, by an author whose name I
presently cannot recall.

Hope this is of some use,
Eric Silverman
DePauw Univ.

I'm not certain if this is immediately germane to the topic, but I thought I
would add it anyhow.