Finding accurate data on the number of American Sign Language (ASL) users in the United States has proven to be a difficult challenge. In my research, I stumbled upon a great paper that analyzes the different sources of estimates. Written by Ross Mitchell at Gallaudet University, the article “Why Estimates Need Updating?” also proposes solutions to improve the system of recording and recognizing ASL users in the United States. The current estimates on ASL users range from 100,000 to 15,000,000—that’s quite a difference. This article clearly lays out the various sources and their estimates in this chart:
Firstly, some of these higher estimates are based on the number of deaf people living in the United States. This is likely because deafness is being conflated with ASL usage. Many people suffer from age-related hearing loss but that does not necessitated ASL usage. Additionally, associating deafness and ASL usage does not account for other users, such as Children of Deaf Adults (CODAs), interpreters, audiologists, and speech therapists. In order to accurately determine the number of ASL users, these factors need to be considered. Some of the estimates were taken based on need for a courtroom interpreter, only accounting for users who could not communicate in English neglecting bilingual users. When these estimates were compared to the language rankings in the United States, ASL was placed high on the list. However, based on research and estimates by Mitchell, “ASL-only users would have easily outnumbered many other non-English-language-only groups.” Meaning that the number of people only using ASL is likely great than those exclusively using another non-English language.
Another key reason for these inaccurate estimates is because the U.S. Census Bureau does not consider ASL as a non-English language. When collecting data on demographics, the Census poses the question: “are there non-English language SPOKEN at home?” Well, ASL is not a spoken language; it’s a manual, visual, gestural language. If an ASL user answers this questions with American Sign Language, the Census Bureau codes it as spoken English, despite the fact that ASL is not spoken. One simple suggestion made by Mitchell is for the Bureau to word the question as: “are any non-English languages USED in the home?” This would allow for ASL to be recognized as a language and to be coded separately from spoken English. Other suggestions include incorporating questions about ASL usage into the annual National Health Interview Survey or create an independent study to address the question. Considering these recommendations an effort should be made to collect accurate data on ASL users.
Mitchell, Ross E., Travas A. Young, Bellamie Bachleda, and Michael A. Karchmer. “How Many People Use ASL in the United States? Why Estimates Need Updating.” Sign Language Studies 6.3 (2005): 306-35. Print.
I thought this chart gave a nice overview of non-manual signs and how they are used in ASL. This gestures can convey important information about grammar and emotion that add to the content of a message.
Sign language is often spoken of as a “manual” language, meaning that the signers’ hands produce the language. But in fact there is a much more to the language then simply hand motion. Facial expressions, head and body movements, and posture all factor into the meaning of the signs. One study suggests that ASL should more appropriately be described as a “visual-gestural language—where gesture is a generic term referring to body movement.”
Facial expression and body movement help form the sign. They add intensity. They provide grammatical and prosodic information. They also act as adverbs or adjectives. A particular combination of movements determine whether a sentence is a question, an assertion, or a command. It can also indicate negation or structural information about the sentence.
The Facial Action Coding System (FACS) has been used to identify the universal movements of when people experience one of the six basic emotions (happiness, fear, sadness, disgust, anger, surprise). But now it’s been used to code expressions in ASL. The results below show what behaviors occur with various types of questions when signed in ASL. These behaviors indicate eyebrow raise, eyelid movements, and altered eyebrow shape. Slight changes in facial position determine what type of question is being posed.
Baker-Shenk, Charlotte. “The Facial Behavior of Deaf Signers: Evidence of a Complex Language.” American Annals of the Deaf 130.4 (1985): 297-304. Project MUSE. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.
This documentary from 2000 follows the extended Artinian Family of three generations. Below is a family tree to outline who is who:
Over the course of a year and half, the film documents the poignant struggle and clash between family members of the Deaf and Hearing worlds. At six years old, Heather, the oldest child of Peter, decided that she wanted a cochlear implant (CI). This device can be used with profoundly deaf clients experiencing a sensorineural hearing loss. It bypasses the damaged cochlea and use electronic stimulation to receive and process sound. Heather’s parents disapproved of the CI because they feared it would take her away from the Deaf world and their culture. Her father believes that as a deaf person his natural language is signing and his daughter belongs with the family in the Deaf world. While Peter Artinian and Nita, his wife, mull over Heather’s suggestion of a CI, Chris and Mari Artinian give birth to twin boys, one of whom is deaf.
Although Chris and Mari are both fluent in ASL and are closely connected the Deaf community, they decide that Peter (their deaf son) should receive a cochlear implant. Mari’s deaf parents are opposed, but Chris’ hearing parents are supportive. Mari and Chris agree that giving Peter the cochlear implant will afford him more and better opportunities in the future. At the conclusion of the 2000 documentary, Peter receives a CI and begins speech therapy. Peter and Nita Artinian decide against Heather’s implant and move their family to Maryland, where there is a large Deaf population.
In 2006, there was a follow-up to the film. At this point, Heather was 12 years old and her parents had opted for the CI for her and her brothers. Recently, Heather gave a TEDTalk at Georgetown University, where she is studying government and politics. Her talk focuses on “building a bridge” between worlds. In her case, she bridged the gap between the hearing world and the Deaf community as she knows it. She urges everyone “to reach out, allow other people in, try to understand different experiences, allow others to understand yours. No matter what your experiences are, positive or negative, you will make an impact.”
When most people think of communication, they immediately recall words, speech, phrases, phone calls. But sign language is entirely visual; there is no spoken element of it. Pamela Weisman makes a really interesting point in her TEDtalk by saying “If you aren’t looking at the person you’re signing with, there’s no communication. Every second you look away you’re missing important aspects of your conversation, this makes communication more intimate and deeper connections are made. To the hearing, communication has become this thing we hardly even think about anymore.”
One of the first things that drew me to sign language was the visual component of it. In our modern world where many conversations happen with the barrier of a screen, I wanted to understand ASL in terms of total communication. If we all had to communicate using sign language, every hearing person would have to put down his or her iPhones and laptops while having a conversation. And while this would be a challenge for many people in today’s society, I would love to see communication like that.
As Weisman said, sign language allows for deeper more meaningful connections because it demands more attention and thought. Recognizing this aspect of sign language, can be helpful in improving all modes of communication. If we all realized the attentiveness and care that goes into sign language, we could apply that to spoken conversations and develop even better communication skills, even in a hearing community.