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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Language Attitudes in the American Deaf Community
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standard asl

Since the early linguistic studies of ASL, standard ASL has been sustained and shaped by ASL teaching curriculum, canonical publications (such as ASL dictionaries and textbooks), ASL proficiency evaluations, and professional organizations. Croneberg (1965) explicitly stated that “the body of signs used at Gallaudet, then, must contain the main base of what we call standard ASL” (p. 319, emphasis added).

In addition, a common belief within the Deaf community is that early ASL acquisition and ASL exposure are important factors in developing ASL proficiency (which is usually standard ASL). For example, Deaf people who are proficient in ASL are either part of the Deaf generational lineage or have attended special schools for the deaf where ASL is the norm. In contrast, deaf people who are less proficient in ASL are assumed to be raised by hearing families or be schooled in a mainstream educational setting where ASL has a marginal role in an English-dominant curriculum.

In reality, it is possible that there is more than one ASL standard in the American Deaf community based on social factors such as generational status, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and region. Education is another aspect that is strongly linked with the reality of the American Deaf community. For example, deaf education has a historical and ongoing impact on the language of instruction for deaf and hard of hearing children. Given that English is the national language in the United States and that Americans are expected to be proficient in English, proponents and opponents of ASL as the language of instruction have exerted both educational and political pressure. To complicate matters further, an increasing number of deaf and hard of hearing students are being schooled in mainstream educational settings with a variety of communication methods (from English-only to bilingual–bimodal practices), and a decreasing number of students are enrolled at special schools for the deaf where ASL is usually practiced. Another factor to consider is the viewpoints of the deaf communities and even individuals on which ASL forms and features should be deemed standard or acceptable to distinguish them from the forms and features that are based on English. This volume presents the results of an exploratory study to determine the linguistic and social factors that govern attitudes toward signing among the diverse social groups in the American Deaf community.

language attitudes

Attitude is defined as “a psychological tendency that is expressed by evaluating a particular entity with some degree of favor or disfavor” (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993, p. 1). The particular entity being evaluated is called the attitude object (Eagly & Chaiken, 2007, p. 583). In the study presented here, the attitude object was a deaf or hard of hearing person’s signing. Because the attitude object is a language, the study focused on affective, cognitive, and behavioral types of evaluative responses toward particular language varieties (that is, languages, dialects, pidgins, and creoles) based on stereotypical perceptions of social groups who use those varieties (Preston, 2002; Campbell-Kibler, 2006, 2009; Garrett, 2010). Responses toward language varieties, which are attitude objects, are based on two perceptions: a sensory perception of linguistic items in a language variety and a stereotypical perception of a social group that uses these items. Linguistic items can be found on different linguistic levels from phonology (in the specific sense) to discourse (in the broadest sense). For example, on the phonological level, one community may produce a vowel in a word differently from another community (e.g., vowels /e/ and /i/ in pin); on the lexical level, two mutually intelligible linguistic communities use different words to refer to same objects (e.g., soda/pop/coke, sofa/couch/davenport); and on the grammatical and discourse levels, one community can have a sentential construction different from that used in another community to produce the same meaning (e.g., She is usually home at 7 / She be home at 7).

Linguistic items usually evoke a stereotypical image of a social group. For example, the grammatical construction of She be home at 7 is a typical and acceptable construction in AAE but it is not typical or acceptable in Standard English. This is where a stereotypical perception of a social group comes into play. The variants of a linguistic item are used by members of a social group to identify speakers who are socially similar or different; in other words, the variants carry social meaning for people to implicitly perceive and inform each other of their social characteristics (Garrett, 2010; Campbell-Kibler, 2009). Social meaning may elicit different evaluative responses toward a person’s language and, in a social context, influences the social standing of members of a linguistic community. Attitudes toward language varieties are generally influenced by the process of language standardization (Garrett, 2010, p. 7).

When one language variety is deemed “standard,” it impacts (usually devalues) the status of other language varieties and of social groups using those language varieties in a particular context (Garrett, 2010), and members of society, regardless of their social status, consciously or unconsciously “subscribe to the ideology of the standard language” (Milroy, 2001, p. 535) because of their belief in correctness. Even with people’s awareness of a standard language or language variety, “standard” is relative based on perceptions within geographical regions. For example, the deletion of r in “car” (i.e., /ka/) is perceived as standard in New England, as is the presence of r in “car” (/kar/) in the South (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes, 2006, p. 12). The sentences “they go to the beach,” “they go to the shore,” and “they go to the ocean” are judged to be Standard English as well, depending on where the sentences are used (p. 12).

asl and English in the American deaf community

In many ways, English is the standard language of the United States, and non-English languages (e.g., Spanish, Chinese, Navajo) are generally relegated to secondary status. Not only is English highly valued in the country, but the Standard English variety is highly favored over other English varieties (e.g., African American English, Appalachian English, Chicano English). In that sense, one must be proficient in Standard English in order to be a productive and respectable member of American society.

ASL is a full-fledged language that is historically, grammatically, and structurally independent of spoken English. ASL arose from the mixture of French Sign Language, home signs, and an indigenous sign language that was in use by American deaf people prior to the founding of the first school for the deaf (Lane et al., 1996; Lane, Pillard, & French, 2007; Groce, 1985). ASL is expressed not only with manual signs but also with grammatically obligatory and optional nonmanual signals produced on the face and upper torso. It is both a stigmatized language in mainstream American society and the standard language in the American Deaf community. The growth of ASL course offerings is phenomenal; for example, from 1987 to 2005, the number of U.S. public high schools offering ASL classes grew from 17 to 701 (>4000% increase) (Rosen, 2010). Also, ASL is among the top minority languages in the United States (Lane et al., 1996, p. 42; Padden & Humphries, 2005, p. 9).

It is difficult to determine the number of native[7] or near-native deaf and hard of hearing ASL signers in the United States because various reports of the ASL population estimate run from 100,000 to 2,000,000, and the methods of gathering or calculating the estimate are questionable (Mitchell, Young, Bachleda, & Karchmer, 2006). Approximately 8% of deaf children in the United States have at least one parent who is deaf or hard of hearing, but an account of how many homes use ASL as the home language is not available (Mitchell & Karchmer, 2004). About 4.8% of deaf children have one hearing parent and one deaf or hard of hearing parent, and approximately 3.5% have two deaf or hard of hearing parents. Moreover, deaf and hard of hearing children who have at least one deaf parent are more likely to use sign language at home


    7. Native means acquiring a primary language fully during the critical period, the first few years of childhood.


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