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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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stereotypical social groups for signing varieties

The attitudes toward signing varieties are tied with the perceptions of social identities related to deafness and signing abilities. The social identities in the American Deaf community are as follows: Deaf is a person with an entrenched cultural identity and a carrier of ASL; hard of hearing is a person with residual hearing and speech capacity and possible signing proficiency in ASL, contact signing, or MCE; oral deaf is a person with little or no hearing but has a strong preference in oral communication over signing for daily use; late deafened is a person who possessed normal hearing and speech abilities before losing them as a result of illness, genetic predisposition, or accident; and hearing is a person with normal hearing and speech abilities in contact with a deaf community in whatever role.[11] Although these identities are presented in a simple manner, they are not as clean and fixed as they appear in the American Deaf community or, generally speaking, all deaf communities in the world. Throughout the world, deaf identities and a notion of Deaf culture may not be the same in all deaf communities because “the nature of deaf and Deaf identity in a given community depends on the forms of community and language” and with respect to forms, “the form any sign language takes is intertwined with the nature of the community that uses it” (Monaghan, 2003, p. 20).

Notwithstanding the complexity of deaf identities, the use of ASL is one qualifying property (i.e., shared language) signaling membership in the American Deaf community (Kannapell, 1994). Other properties such as a collective name, sense of community, shared and distinct values and customs, culture knowledge, history, social structures, and arts underpin a Deaf identity (Leigh, 2009). Even Deaf children are aware of the importance of language use to their social identities (Johnson & Erting, 1989). It is through interaction that the children develop their social identity based on language use and form, and their interactions form the language attitudes that lead them to favor a group that uses the language form more like theirs. Deaf children who are proficient in ASL communicate and associate with each other more often than do Deaf children who are less proficient in ASL (Johnson and Erting, 1989). To sum up the discussion on social identities, the use of ASL, contact signing, or MCE is a signal carrying social meaning for others to infer one’s membership in social groups in the American Deaf community.

ASL signers generally understand that the social identity of a listener influences a signer to choose a signing variety that aligns with the supposed communication preference of the listener. For example, Deaf signers use ASL with each other but consciously or unconsciously switch to contact signing or Signed English when a hearing signer joins in their conversation. When the hearing signer leaves, Deaf signers will revert back to ASL. However, a study by Lucas and Valli (1992) has shown that a social identity is not a significant factor on the change of signing between interlocutors. Lucas and Valli found that some Deaf signers will use ASL with a hearing person, and some Deaf signers will use contact signing or even MCE signing with other Deaf signers. Other factors that influence signing choice with an interlocutor include formality of the setting, familiarity with the interlocutor, and pride in one’s membership in a social group (Lucas & Valli, 1992, pp. 63–64).

Not only did Lucas and Valli (1992) examine the signers’ choice of signing type in various situations, but they also examined the issues of how the signers’ signing was perceived. The researchers had a panel of ASL language professionals judge a total of 20 clips of different signers as “ASL” and “not ASL.” The experts were unanimous in their judgments of five clips as “ASL” and the rest as “not ASL.” The same clips were tested on Deaf signers who had no linguistic training (i.e., “naïve” judges) and their judgments were not always in accordance with the master judges. The difference in results led Lucas and Valli to explore possible correlations with the judges’ social characteristics. For example, on a particular clip, all master judges agreed that it was “not ASL,” but 37% of White naïve judges judged the clip as “ASL” and 82% of Black naïve judges judged it as “ASL” (70). The discrepancy in judgment between White and Black naïve judges could be related to the salience of linguistic structures in their perception. For instance, a signer in the clip used contact signing with English word order but also used key ASL features such as eye gaze, referential spaces, and body shift (100). The saliency of these key ASL features in the Black judges’ perception despite the obvious presence of English could account for the discrepancy in the results.

american deaf community’s perceptions of signing varieties

Since the introduction of English-based sign systems, the sign systems, ASL, and contact signing have coexisted, but some members of the American Deaf community are particularly averse to English-based sign systems for the historical, linguistic, and cultural reasons. There have been repeated attempts to replace ASL with English-based sign systems and oral means of communication with a lack of reverence for ASL as a linguistic and cultural treasure of the Deaf community. Despite a large body of research with evidence of ASL as a natural language, there has been a complete disregard, either out of ignorance or opposition, to using ASL. Because of this aversion, attempts have been made to standardize and preserve ASL through dictionaries, proficiency exams, teaching materials, organizations, and courses. One result of standardization is that signers develop certain attitudes toward other signers’ use of linguistic items and features. These items can involve different linguistic levels from phonological (e.g., the use of a P handshape or a 5 handshape in the sign parent; see Figure 4) to syntactic (e.g., signing in ASL or English word order) to discourse (e.g., the use of eye gaze in signing). Differences between ASL and English-based signing systems are contrastive on most linguistic levels, but with regard to a contact variety possessing features from both ASL and English-based signing systems, the distinction is less clear and variation in contact signing is largely based on individuals. Consider a simple example of contact signing: a signer produces linguistic items with obvious ASL features on all linguistic levels, except for the syntactic level, on which some phrases produced are in English word order, and for the lexical level, where only four English-based signs and, but, then, and because are used instead of body shifts and other ASL conventions. These English-based signs (and, but, then, and because) are strongly discouraged in the American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA) teacher certification evaluation application and the ASL language proficiency evaluation instruction (ASLTA, 2010; Newell & Caccamise, 2008).

One may surmise that because the signer’s signing has more ASL forms than English-like forms, it should be ASL, but it really depends on what is perceptually salient for the observer: (1) The signer could be perceived to be using ASL because ASL forms have a predominant presence in the signing compared to the marginal presence of English-influenced forms; (2) the signer could be perceived to be using contact signing because ASL and English forms are equally salient even though the number of English forms is minimal; or (3) the signer could be perceived to be using English- based signing because of the striking presence of English word order and English-influenced signs that is too difficult to ignore. Even in the signing of the same linguistic items, a marginal presence of English-influenced forms can have a small, medium, or large effect on someone’s perception of the signing.

Even though the members of the American Deaf community consider themselves a cultural and linguistic minority with ASL as the common language, the American Deaf community is not monolithic. There are a considerable number of deaf ASL signers who were born to deaf parents, exposed to ASL during the critical age of language acquisition, and attended deaf school. For that reason, there is a general perception that standard ASL is passed from generation to generation in Deaf families and is perpetuated in special schools for the deaf where ASL is the dominant language. Deaf people who are reared by hearing parents or schooled in a mainstream educational setting, however, are not considered fluent ASL signers because ASL may play a marginal role in an English-based curriculum. There are a disproportionate number of community members who were born to hearing parents and have attended mainstream education programs that might use English-based communication methods instead of ASL.


     11. Please refer to Jacobs, 1989; Kannapell, 1994; Stone and Sterling, 1994; and Leigh, 2009, for further discussion on various identities in the Deaf community.


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