Credit: lifeprint.comAmerican Sign Language (ASL) is a system of communication using only hand signals. Approximately 500,000 Americans use it in their daily communication. It is used by deaf people, hard of hearing, and hearing people (Wilcox, 1989). This officially makes it the fourth most popular language in the U.S. (NIDCD, 2000). Almost 20 percent of the U.S. states public school schools offer it under the speech, education, or communication disorder departments instead of a foreign language department (Kanda & Fleischer, 1988).
Many have been fighting to make it an option for foreign language class but as in any other issues, there are two sides of the story. One side says that it cannot be considered a foreign language because ASL was developed and used only in the U.S. (Conover, 1997). Other countries have their own sign language system. The other side believes that ASL is similar to a language having different dialects. Susan Gass, co-director of the Center for Language Education and Research at Michigan State University said that among linguists, there isn’t any debate on the validity of sign language as an official one.
Regardless of the side anyone ever takes, there is no denying that learning sign language offers a lot of benefits including getting new job opportunities and the opportunity to know more people and learn from their culture. More importantly, learning the language of deaf and hard of hearing may be the key to truly erasing the culture of discrimination that people have against the deaf. However, it is going to take more than just offering sign language as a foreign language course option. Integrating sign language must be done as early as the primary education. It is by allowing the children to become familiar with the language that will usher in its integration to mainstream society. This paper will explore social, personal and psychological benefits of integrating Sign Language as early as the primary year in school.
If sign language is introduced in primary schools, younger generation will be trained to finally start looking at deaf and mute as an equal. Being able to communicate with them will bring a level of familiarity which will, in turn, change the practice of discrimination against the deaf and mute (Crossley, 2000). Learning another language will include an opportunity to learn about the culture of the community where the language originated from. The understanding of culture will allow the students to look beyond the perceived handicap in this case. Given that most of their values are formed during their primary years, children will learn the value of looking every human being and not be subjected to the same prejudice that majority of the adult population holds.
This will automatically come with the benefit is allowing the children the capacity to communicate with greater number of people that will also widen their opportunity to learn from more people and exchange knowledge and experiences. There are a lot of achievers in the field of science and technology and arts that are deaf and mute (Karchmer & Mitchell 2003). Learning their language will give young students an opportunity to learn from these people.
It is also proven that learning sign language stimulates three extra areas of learning, visual, spatial, and tactile. Psychological, Sociological and even Physiological studies have attested to the value of learning how to read body language and learn communication beyond the verbal way. It increases the child’s intellectual quotient and emotional quotient (Armstrong, 1994). According to their study, there are areas of learning that are often overlooked. This generally wastes a lot of potentials. Tapping these areas of learning will allow students to tap into other areas if they are unable to understand a lesson with one. They will also be able to use one area to support another or increase their understanding of a concept because they are able to understand lessons from different perspectives.
Opening more areas of learning will allow students to maximize their potentials. Armstrong (1994) discussed how students who are able to tap to all their areas of learning showed apparent improvements in their academic and personal performances. Specifically, the students showed:
- increased responsibility, self-direction and independence
- reduced cases of discipline problems
- acquisition of new skills writing songs, participating in theatre, writing poems, learning how to draw, and others
- higher ability to collaborate
- improved academic performance.
These are all the possibilities that await students if they learn sign languages. It extends beyond just learning an extra language, it provides them the opportunity to improve themselves in different aspects. Maximizing the potential of the brain leads to so many possibilities including developing new skills. The mere fact that students that are able to tap all their areas of learning have reported developing art skills means sign language deserves to be seriously considered as a learning tool too, one that must be utilized as early as possible.
Naturally, adding the sign language also provides benefits to the deaf and mute and those that are hard of hearing. The Gallaudet Research Institute (2003) Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard-of-hearing Children and Youth determined that only 27% of children have the capability to attend special schools that allows them to learn the same things that students attending regular schools attend. This means that students who are hard of hearing or totally deaf attend public school or regular school with no special assistance. They are not provided with an interpreter and the hearing students are also not required to learn their language (Karchmer & Mitchell, 2003)
Half of the regular educational institutions in the U.S. reported they have students who are either totally or legally deaf. Despite their population, there isn’t any effort to allow the deaf and mute to meld with society better. Given that a lot of the education also happens when student interact among themselves, students who are hard of hearing or totally deaf miss out on this level of education. Implementing sign language education to the primary level will level the playing field for those who are hard of hearing or totally deaf students. They can interact more, learn more and know more from the hearing people.
The hearing and deaf will have equal chances of getting the same job. The hearing will also benefit because Sign Language interpreters are indemand. It is one expertise that cuts across all other fields. Large businesses, for one, are forever scrambling for ways to be able to serve all kinds of customers and relate to all kinds of clients. That is why they are always looking for interpreters. Government agencies and educational institutions are all willing to pay higher salaries just to fill in their positions (Salter, 2003).
The median annual wages of Interpreters was $38,850 at the heights of recession. About 50% of interpreters earned between $28,940 and $52,240. The new ones earned an average of $22,170. The bigger earners earned more than $69,190. There are also those who were considered specialists working for highly skilled professions like law. They earned an average of $79,865.
Interpreting offers a decent earning opportunity and is a legitimate career. The earning potential can more than provide for a good living. The lowest pay is above minimum wage even during recession.
This can also give those who are into other careers an edge over other employees. Being able to communicate with deaf clients or customers will make the employee more indispensible to the company. This could be especially useful on jobs that deal with client servicing. If the company happens to have a deaf or hard of hearing client, the employee that knows sign language will be able to communicate with the deaf or hard of hearing client.
The world will never run out of deaf and hard of hearing people. This means that there will always be a need for the sign language interpreters, job requirements will always be available. The recent economic crisis proved how important it is to have more skills because no one can predict what will happen to the economy. Having more skills will increase one’s potential to get a job.
Hardly anyone disputes that sign language is a useful skill but the arguments laid out above prove that it must become more than just a skill. It needs to become a part of one’s way of living. Learning the sign language widens children’s social circle. They are given the ability to communicate even with those that are deaf and hard of hearing. This means can have more friends, learn from more people, and stimulate the exchange of knowledge more.
It is also when the development of an intimate level of familiarity that the true empathy towards the deaf come. The deaf and the mute have been looked at as an inferior member of the community for so long simply because not all their senses are working. It is time for people to realize that just because they don’t have all the senses doesn’t mean they are less capable. However, that realization will only come if they are able to communicate with them directly.
It is also interesting to know that learning sign language can make students smarter because the language stimulates alternative learning styles. Reports about learning new skills and improved academic performance prove that sign language is a legitimate teaching or learning tool.
The government and schools will, of course, incur expenses as it revises the curriculum and hire teachers that can teach sing language among young students. However, the benefits mentioned above make it a worthwhile effort.
More importantly, integrating the sign language in the primary level could well be the most significant move that the government will make in its effort to stop the discrimination against disabled people, specifically the deaf and mute.
Armstrong, T. (1994). Multiple Intelligences in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Crossley, M. (2000). Introducing Narrative Psychology: Self, Trauma and the Construction of Meaning, Buckingham: Open University Press.
Gallaudet Research Institute (2003, December) Regional and national summary report of data from the 2002–2003 Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and Youth (GRI, Gallaudet University, Washington, DC).
Kanda, J. & L. Fleischer. 1988. "Who is Qualified to Teach American Sign Language?". http://www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed309651.html
Karchmer MA, Mitchell RE (2003) in Oxford handbook of deaf studies, language, and education, Demographic and achievement characteristics of deaf and hard of hearing students, eds Marschark M, Spencer PE (Oxford University Press, New York), pp 21–37.
National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. March 8, 2001. "American Sign Language: Quick Facts". http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/pubs_hb/asl.htm
Salter, Lacey. (2003, October, 12). Lending a hand can be a noble calling. http://www.jobjournal.com/. 06 December 2006. www.jobjournal.com/article_full_text.asp?artid=955.
Wilcox, Sherman. No Date. American Sign Language As A Foreign Language. http://www.unm.edu/~wilcox/ASLFL/asl_fl.html
Wilcox, Sherman. 1989. "Foreign Language Requirement? Why Not American Sign Language?". ERIC Digests. http://www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed309651.html
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