According to Padden and Humphries, Deaf culture refers to a set of acquired behaviors of a certain group of individuals who share a language, traditions, values as well as rules of behaviors. Burch notes that the Deaf culture has existed in America for over 150 years. The culture has been largely nurtured by the persistent evangelical spirit that arose during The Second Great Awakening period. This write-up analyzes the various elements of the American Sign Language which make it an important component of Deaf culture in the American Society. The write-up will consider that language and culture are closely linked to each other. That is, it is not possible to learn a culture without language and vice versa; language remains to have no point of reference.
The members of the Deaf culture have one thing in common: they share the American Sign Language. ASL is, thus, an essential link between the American Deaf community and the Deaf culture and must be given its due consideration in the society. The sign language is the pride and rich heritage to the Deaf people; to them, it is the ability to overcome adversity as a group (NIDCD 1). Therefore, the most regarded asset in Deaf culture is the American Sign Language. This indicates that spoken English is more or less useless to the Deaf community. In fact, mastery of the American Sign Language as well as skillful storytelling forms a part of highly valued components of the Deaf culture. Sign language is also important in the passage of the culture from one generation to another within the Deaf community. Through the language, the subsequent generations receive values, wisdom, and the pride of deaf culture. This reinforces the bonds within the community and ensures that the younger generation remains united.
Another important aspect brought about by the ASL is the need to understand the fact that deaf identity is highly valued among members of the Deaf community. Members of the community believe that hearing individuals can never learn the American Sign Language to the extent that will similarly attain an identity to become a full-fledged member of their community (ASLInfo 1). In fact, deaf people are not only a group of like-minded individuals; they form a part of a culture which has a set of acquired and learned behaviors. Therefore, one must be able to know these behaviors in order to fit in the culture. In addition, the language is an important crafting identity even within the culture itself. Signs used by males differ from those used by female signers while some variation exists between young signers and old signers. Consequently, through language, a perfect community for the deaf people is attainable.
The deaf people value their identity so much that about 9 out of 10 deaf individual ends up being married to another of their own culture. Surprisingly, most couples who are deaf wish that children born to them were deaf. They have the urge and desire to entrust the culture to people who will maintain and successfully pass in downwards. ASL was considered a real language after the publication of Dictionary of American Sign Language by William Stokoe. He became the first person ever to break American Sign Language down into components of a language. Thus, he proved that ASL is a true language and not “pictures in the air” or “English in the hands” as some people had thought it was.
Additionally, ASL is understood as a complete and complex language that uses signs by means of hand movement together with facial expression and body postures. ASL differs from spoken language, as those who use spoken language produce words by use of mouth and voice in order to make sounds. On the contrary, those who are deaf produce the sound and speech that are not often heard; save for a fraction of speech sound that may be visible from on the lips (NIDCD 1). This means that while communicating, the parties involved must keep staring at each other. This explains why, in Deaf culture, it is rude for one person to remove the face while the other party is passing a message. This is contrary to the norm in hearing culture where it is rude to stare. In addition, facial expression is considered modest as it forms a grammar component in ASL.
However, just as any other spoken language, American Sign Language is capable of displaying complex as well as abstract ideas skillfully and firmly. Just from the body language, deaf people are able to pick up connotations during the conversations in the same manner hearing that people do while listening to a tone of voice. Using ASL, one can express humor, wit, poetry as well as satire quite passionately just as those using spoken language (Nakamura 1). Other than sharing its expressiveness with poetry and stories, American Sign Language greatly enhances music. The language is popularly employed in song interpretation that is a common and beautiful Deaf culture art form. Ironically, this art is not often used in the Deaf community but is very popular among the hearing as well as the hard-of-hearing American Sign Language speaking category.
The language arose as a result of intermixing of the French Sign language (FSL) and local language signs. The intermixing of the two explains why the American Sign Language contains some elements of French Sign Language as well as elements of the original local sign languages. Over years, the blend has developed to form a language which is rich, complex, and mature. Modern America Sign Language and the modern French Sign Language still have some degree of similarity, but the two languages are very distinct; the users of the two languages can hardly understand each other (NIDCD 1).
American Sign Language must, therefore, be understood as the primary language for most of the deaf people in North America. It is one of the options used by those who are deaf or having difficulty in hearing among the several modes of communication available for the deaf. Attempts have been made to train Deaf people to be able to read lips so as to comprehend English. In mid nineteenth century, the Deaf people were forced to learn signing systems having more correlation to English Language. This explains why there exist several different sign languages in United States currently. Signed English, Signed Exact English I and II, as well as Cued English, among others, are examples of these different sign languages. However, this has largely been viewed as unnecessary due to the fact that comprehension of English does not in any way relate to ASL (NIDCD 1).
The main difference between ASL and other sign languages is the extent of similarity to English grammar. Otherwise, sign languages differ from ASL only in a few features. Some sign languages try to reflect the structure of English language strictly. On the other hand, others are more flexible (ASLInfo 1). As opposed to other sign languages, most Deaf people regard ASL as a language of natural choice. To them, ASL is more flexible and reasonable. This is due to the fact that the ASL evolved from the Deaf community while other sign languages have more arbitrary systems developed by people who had other goals in mind than communication. Denying the deaf children opportunity to speak English deprives them of their true language as well as the ability to participate in effective communication (NIDCD 1).
ASL differs distinctly from the English language. This language, in its self, contains all the fundamental features just as other languages. The rules of pronunciation are distinct, the word order as well as the complex grammar are unique to this language. All languages differ according to how they signal for different functions; for example, each language has a distinct manner to indicate that one is asking a question and not making as statement. While asking questions in spoken English, the speakers raise the pitch of their voices. On the other hand, in ASL while asking questions the users pose gestures such as rising of their eyebrows, widening of their eyes as well as tilting of their bodies forward (Padden and Humphries 4). For example, to sign for a question of “what, who, why or when” one has to lower or squint the eyebrow with slight tilting of the head. On the other hand, by raising the eyebrow and slightly widening the eyes, one signs for a “Yes or No” question. ASL has a different topic-comment structure from the subject-predicate structure employed in English.
Apart from the individual differences in expression, American Sign Language has regional accents as well as dialects. While English speakers have certain words spoken differently in various regions across the country, the ASL depicts variations in pronunciation, form as well as rhythm of signing in different parts of the country. It is explained by the fact that languages usually develop differently whenever people are isolated from each other. The variation in ASL usage seems to be influenced by ethnicity and age among other factors (Nakamura 1). Different countries or regions have different sign languages. For instance, ASL is different from the British Sign Language (BSL) even though both are English-speaking nations (Padden and Humphries 2).
Currently, American Sign Language is considered to be an effective language in communication as it satisfies all the requirements needed for it to be considered human language. It is shared by members of a community and its rule is governed with grammatical symbol system that does change over time. Just as spoken language has different elements, consonant and vowel sounds, in the same way American Sign Language is formed from “components”. However, ASL components are not composed of consonants and vowels but rather of specific hand shapes, hand movements as well as specific hand locations. In spoken language words may differ minimally in sound yet have serious disparities in meaning.
For instance, by changing the first letter of the word “hit” one obtains several words such as lit, kit, bit, sit and pit. This type of constructive analysis is a procedure that has also been applied to identify meaningful hand shapes, locations as well as movements. As exemplified in the drawing below, to sign for “father” the fore head is tapped once. If the position of the hand is changed to tap the chin, once the same sign which meant “father” changes to mean mother.
In the same manner, if movement used for the sign that means “father” is changed from one slight tap at the forehead to have a double movement away from the head, the sign produced acquires a new meaning, “grandfather”.
Most people believe that given the structure of the signed language, it lacks rhetoric. On the contrary, American Sign Language is quite effective in communication; it incorporates metaphors, plays on words, puns, repetition of words in order to persuade, convince and inspire listeners. Users of the American Sign Language are able to connect to their listeners and be able to effectively and efficiently convince them of the opinion the signer holds (Ucci 14).
Sign Media reports a case in a certain school in which students wanted to conduct an election to choose their officials. Those students who were nominated to vie for the posts were given an opportunity to explain to the rest of the students what they would do during their tenure in office. One of those running for the position of class president was a deaf student. When it was his turn to convince the colleagues that he was the best for the position, he went to the board and wrote the following words: “Nothing is impossible since the same can be spelled as “I’m possible!” He then translated the message to his classmate into the American Sign Language. He effectively communicated to the class that if elected the class president, nothing will stop him.
He continued by emphasizing the team work rather than complaining. He employed a combination of signs and clever ideas to bring his message forth. He used his right hand to form a C-shape, to sign for “COMPLAIN”. He then used his left hand and grabbed the right hand in a bid to stop the former’s movement; this meant he would stop all complaints. With the left hand still holding the right he moved it deliberately and slowly to point down, just in front of him. He finally released and placed the hand in front of him and then moved both hands bringing forth the idea of “ACTION”. In essence, the student was saying that they ought not to complain but rather swing into action, he was relaying the message that he will not tolerate complains.
This case study identifies the importance of facial expression as an aspect of ASL. That is, while issuing commands using the American Sign Language the signer must emphasize or stress the statement by looking directly at the individual the command is addressed to. This shows that by producing a shaper or faster sign than what is normally used one would be able to show that the statement is a command. It is also possible to emphasize it by deliberately making a sign much more slowly than usual. For example, to command one to stop teasing a cat one would directly look at the person and sign the following words; “FINISH TEASE CAT FINISH.” The word “finish” is stressed by employing repetition. Repetitions unify ideas and reinforce meaning or echo the sense of the communication.
Another important aspect in the American Sign Language revealed here is repetition and movement which can be used together to create rhythm, rhyme as well as meaning in poetry. In signed poetry, repetition creates patterns of both aesthetic and conceptual purposes. Notably, repetition does not just mean repeated hand shape; sign orientation and movement helps create rhythm in the signed poem. Usually the signer has to carefully select the signs in order to create the desired aesthetic outcome. Repetition, movement together with timing create tempo in signed poetry. On the contrary, spoken poetry consists of assonance, alliteration, and consonance (Ucci 15).
It is evident that the American Sign Language also employs the use of metaphors in which they act as a visual representation of communication. In ASL, metaphors are produced by making iconic signs to explain concepts that are hard to express. For example, to signal the word “concentrate” the hands moves from the side of the head; this is where thoughts originate. The hands are then moved forward to a shared space. This signals that the listener should narrow and focus on the mind. The American Sign Language, thus, explains the term “concentrate” by literal nominations. This is unlike spoken English in which the sound of the word “concentrate” has got little connection to the mind. This shows how figurative ASL is; it simplifies terms for easy understanding (Ucci 20).
As a recommendation, it is, therefore, necessary to consider the aspect of language acquisition. In early childhood, most children acquire language from their parents; however this may not be the case for deaf children as they may require additional people as models for acquisition of language. Those children born deaf to deaf parents who already use the American Sign Language would easily learn the language. Such children will acquire sign language in a natural way just as children with normal hearing capacity will learn spoken language progressively from their parents. However, this is not usually the case as studies show that for every 10 children born deaf 9 are born to parents who hear. These children born to hearing parents who have no prior knowledge on use of ASL may acquire the language differently. Some of these parents may choose to introduce their children to the language by learning it themselves. Children learn the language along with their parents. It is surprising that though these parents may not be fluent, children can learn to sign quite fluently (NIDCD 1).
Residential schools should also seek to avail more opportunities for the deaf children to learn the American Sign Language. Such schools should provide vital links that enable transmission of the Deaf culture and ASL to the next generations (ASLInfo 2). However, it is more gainful if parents are able to introduce deaf and hard-of-hearing children to the sign language as early as possible. Research has shown that early age is crucial for the development of language skills by children; even the first few months are quite significant in terms of acquisition of successful communication skills. Therefore, it is paramount for children to be introduced to the sign language at a tender age for the earlier this is done, the better the communication skills of the child become. Currently, this early introduction is possible as most hospitals in United States screen newborn babies before they are released to go home in order to ascertain their hearing ability. Should a child be found to be deaf, the parents will have enough time to learn the sign language and be able to introduce the child to the language at the early age of development (NIDCD 1).
The integration of the deaf people is, therefore, a process that no community can ignore. Following the increase in awareness as well as acceptance of the American Sign Language, people tend to adopt two opposing views while making reference to the deaf community. One of such positions is explained by the cultural model which considers that while examining the deaf people, several factors need to be considered. Cultural view defines the deaf community as a group of people whose cohesion and identity is provided by the sharing of a common language as the means of communication. They view the deaf as people who relate to the rest of the world visually (Burch 3). On the other hand, pathological model supports the reasoning that something is definitely wrong with deaf people and should be fixed. This view has been referred to as audism, which is more or less similar to the abhorred perspectives such as racism, sexism, as well as anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, everyone has the liberty to hold either perspective depending on their attitude and relationship towards the deaf people (Oracle 1).
It is sad that despite the existence of the American Sign Language, most of the deaf people usually find themselves isolated when they are amidst the hearing people. It is a common practice by many people to ignore the deaf individuals when they communicate something. However, the American Sign Language acts as a strong bond for the people. In order to compensate for the period they spend in quietness, the deaf tend to spend a lot of time with their deaf counterparts whenever they meet. For example, situations in which a gathering of the hearing people would end at 10 p.m. that of the deaf would end at 3 a.m. However, it is necessary that those who have the hearing ability accept the Deaf community and make its members feel valued.
Unlike American culture, values of Deaf culture are not openly written or explained. Importance of the American Sign Language in effective communications can not be overlooked. The most visible and best modulated part of the human signaling system is the human face. Facial expression is easily read to a large extent by most people. Moreover, people can read facial expression from different angles and even from the distance. This enables those who are being addressed to read the expression as long as they are within the visual zone. This, among other factors, cannot just give sufficient explanation of how effective and efficient American Sign Language is in communication.