|  Volume 1, Issue 2, June 2003  |  William G. Vicars Ed.D., Editor

Teaching "ASL Linguistics"

Topic:  Language Contact

A student recently asked me to clarify the terms "unique phenomena" and "following spoken language criteria literally" as discussed in the text "Linguistics of American Sign Language," (Valli & Lucas, 2000).

These terms arise as part of a discussion regarding what happens when users of two or more languages have contact with each other. The influences and changes that occur when users of different languages interact can be discussed under the very general heading of "language contact."

Language contact can take place between languages of the same or different modalities.

By "same modality" I'm referring to the mode in which the language is expressed and received. For example, spoken English and spoken German use the same modality: voice and ears. American Sign Language and British Sign Language have the same modality: hands and eyes. But ASL and spoken English have different modalities.

Language contact between two languages that are conveyed using the same modality often leads to lexical borrowing, code-switching, foreigner talk, interference, and the creation of pidgins, Creoles, and mixed systems.

Let me ask you this though, "When a Deaf German and a Deaf American get together, do you see an increase in fingerspelling?" I've been there, trust me, the answer is no. They don't suddenly start developing a shared manual alphabet. Neither do you see them increase their mouthing of words. It would be pointless to mouth an English word to a person who isn't familiar with English.

Contact between a signed language and a spoken language produces a number of results than can be categorized in two general areas:

1. Phenomena that occur from following spoken (or "the other") language criteria literally. For example: lexical borrowing.

2. Phenomena that are unique to mixed modality language contact. (Unique phenomena) For example: fingerspelling, mouthing, and contact signing

Contact between a signed language and a spoken language also results in code-switching. Code-switching manifests in several forms that can be classified as resulting from "following language criteria literally" or as "unique phenomena."
An example of code-switching that results from following language criteria literally would be when a hearing person who is speaking/voicing stops speaking and signs a sentence or two of ASL. Another example is when a Deaf person stops signing and begins voicing in English.

But what if a person were signing ASL and wanted to express a direct English quote? He may switch to a manually coded English system. Switching from signed ASL to signed English is not the same as switching from one natural language to another but rather it is switching from a natural language to a code. Switching from ASL to signed English would best be classified under "unique phenomena."


Valli, C. & Lucas, C. (2000). Linguistics of American Sign Language. (3rd ed.). Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.



What's that Pig Outdoors?

A Book Review

The autobiography of Henry Kisor is one of the most fascinating books that I've read.  Like many deaf people, Henry became deaf after a childhood illness.  But what is unusual for many people in his situation is that he grew up among hearing people using lip-reading as his method
of communication.

Despite his deafness he was always fascinated with words, he loved writing, and his dream was to become a journalist.  He was able to achieve this dream thanks (in my opinion) to his parents who always believed in him and have done a tremendous job giving him the best education that was possible, searching for the best teachers, and simply inspiring him with their unshakable belief that he could excel at anything he wants despite of what other people say (and in those days people knew little about deafness so they were pretty pessimistic about the learning abilities of the deaf)

Another great influence in his life was his teacher, Miss Mirrielees who had unconventional yet effective ways of teaching deaf children. After that, Henry attended another school where he also worked with some very dedicated teachers.  Surprising as it may sound, Kisor attributes the success of his school to the fact that "the principal and his teachers knew little or nothing about the deaf.."  He explains why this was an advantage: "nobody had any preconceived ideas what deaf children could do or could not do."

Very informative is Kisor's description of the evolution of electronics to help the deaf people function in a hearing world.  I find his description of the history behind the TDD, CC (close captioning), cochlear implant, etc. very interesting.  [ISBN: 014014899X]  More Reviews...



Deaf Studies/Deaf Education Programs

Education Issues

In a message dated 5/10/2003 11:09:24 PM Central Daylight Time, "Verda"  writes:

It's certainly a joy to be able to communicate with you.

My name is Verda James, living in the Caribbean Island of St Kitts.

I am hard of hearing and I do use a hearing aid to assist (1998). However, I have no knowledge of sign language because my entire school years were fine. My hearing problem seemed to have developed since I began working.

I now have a keen interest in pursuing a degree in American Sign Language/Deaf Studies and would appreciate your very kind advise with regards to:-

(i) colleges/universities that offer same
(ii) whether you think it would be necessary to attend a Community College first
(iii) whether it is necessary to submit SAT/ACT scores for these colleges/universities
(iv) any other relevant information

I look forward to your soonest response.

Thanks in advance.

Belinda Vicars responds:


A lot of the choices that need to be made are really based on your level of comfort.  There are a couple different ways you can learn sign language:  dive in and take the sink or swim approach or get your feet wet and wade in the shallow end until you've gotten your bearings.

The sink or swim approach would be to attend a signing campus such as Gallaudet University (see below) or NTID and take sign language classes.  It would be as if you were dropped off in the middle of a foreign country (of whose language you've had no prior knowledge of).  This route, in my opinion, is a difficult route to take but it can and has been done.

The getting your feet wet approach would be to take sign language classes at a community college.  Learn the language, meet deaf people, and become immersed into the deaf community.  It is slower and perhaps not as much of a culture shock.  It, however, does not have to be a community college.  If you have your heart set on ASL/Deaf studies, you can wade in a bit deeper and just dive right into the program such as one of the 4-year colleges listed below.  Some of these programs are typically on hearing campuses, so you will be part of both worlds - the deaf and hearing. 

Regardless of what you do, the absolutely critical part of learning (and retaining) sign language is meeting deaf people and getting involved in the community.  The deaf community is already on campus at universities such as Gallaudet.  At most other colleges, you'd actually have to go and hunt down the deaf community because they may not always be at the college you are attending. 

Large cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. has larger concentrations of deaf people than most states and are, therefore, ideal for meeting deaf people.  These cities tend to have a large number of organizations, services, clubs, and activities for the deaf.  For this purpose, I'd highly recommend Northeastern University/ASL program in Boston, Massachusetts or perhaps a smaller campus such as Ohlone College in Fremont, California.

I've compiled a partial list of colleges and universities that offer American Sign Language programs.  Every state, I believe, has some form of sign language curriculum being taught at one of their universities, whether it is a sign language interpreting program, Deaf education, or ASL/Deaf studies program.

The application requirements for the colleges/universities vary.  If you are a nontraditional student (24 years old and older), you probably will not need to submit your SAT/ACT scores. If you are a traditional student, then chances are they will require you to submit your scores.  To be certain, contact the desired university and find out their entry requirements.

There are at least four (that I know of) that cater specifically to deaf students: 
You could major in anything you wish and study sign language as well.
Below are some signing campuses where the majority of students are deaf.

Deaf Campuses/Universities:

Gallaudet University  (Washington, D.C.)
BA, MA, and Ph.D. levels

RIT National Technical Institute for the Deaf (Rochester, NY)
A technical college with a strong liberal arts program.  A wide variety of courses offered here.
AA, BA, MA, and Ph.D. levels

Southwest Collegiate Institute for the Deaf/Howard College - Big Spring, Texas   
Liberal Arts College - BA level

Ohlone College (Fremont, CA) (not a complete signing campus-but a large signing campus)
Liberal Arts College - BA level (Deaf Instructional Center) (ASL program)

General ASL/Deaf Studies/Deaf Education Programs:
(a handful - there are many, many others)

Lamar University (Beaumont, TX)
Deaf Studies/Deaf Education (MA and Ph.D. level)

California State University - Northridge  (Northridge, CA) 
Deaf Education Program (MA level)

California State University - Fresno
Deaf Education Program (MA level)

Northeastern University (Boston, MA)
American Sign Language Program (BA level)

I hope this helps. Good luck in your studies.

--Belinda Vicars


American Sign Language University William Vicars