In her Sept. 27 column, “Don’t forget about ASL,” Kalyn Story questions why American Sign Language cannot fulfill the language requirement in the College of Arts and Sciences. Although the department of Modern Languages and Cultures agrees that ASL is indeed a worthy discipline, we nevertheless maintain that it cannot replace the value of studying a modern language and its culture. The author correctly cites our website which states the need for proficiency in a second language to be able to participate in “today’s multicultural society and global community”. She also quotes Baylor’s mission statement “to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service . . .”. In addition, the first of the five Aspirational Statements of Pro Futuris—”Transformational Education,”—further emphasizes the worldwide aspect of education:
Baylor will be a community recognized for Transformational Education . . . where academic excellence and life-changing experiences ignite leadership potential that increases our students’ desire for wisdom, understanding of calling and preparation for service in a diverse and interconnected global society.
Within Transformational Education, it is more specifically affirmed that Baylor will “increase opportunities for students to develop cultural competency for worldwide leadership through foreign language acquisition, study-abroad opportunities, and internationally focused research.” This attention to global awareness is not unique to Baylor but rather a trend currently fostered in every major institution nationwide.
Kalyn posits that ASL should fulfill the language requirement because it “is a fully developed, natural language that contains linguistic structures and processes English does not.” However, American Sign Language is precisely that—American.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) explains that ASL “is the primary language of many North Americans who are deaf and is one of several communication options used by people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.” Yet, it points out that “[n]o one form of sign language is universal. Different sign languages are used in different countries or regions. For example, British Sign Language (BSL) is a different language from ASL, and Americans who know ASL may not understand BSL”. In response to the question, “Is sign language international?” signwriting.org states, “No. It is not. There is a different signed language in every country. In fact, some countries have several signed languages.” The website “Ethnologue: Languages of the World” lists 138 deaf sign languages which include, Argentine SL, Austrian SL, Bolivian SL, Brazilian SL, Chilean SL, Chinese SL, Cuban SL, French Belgian SL, French SL, German SL, along with 128 additional sign languages. Gallaudet University, which prides itself on being, “[t]he world’s only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard of hearing students,” puts the figure at 271 sign languages worldwide. Therefore, there is really nothing international, worldwide, or global about American Sign Language.
Furthermore, the study of a modern language at Baylor is not limited to linguistics. In 2013, we changed the name of our department from Modern Foreign Languages to Modern Languages and Cultures to emphasize the fact that we expose our students to non-English-speaking cultures as well as their respective languages. Although it is sometimes argued that the deaf community is a culture in its own right, those familiar with American Sign Language would nonetheless be largely American.
We applaud students who pursue a knowledge of ASL in order to communicate with a very deserving but often neglected group of Americans. However, forgoing the study of a modern language and its culture risks closing one’s mind to a world of rich diversity that lies beyond our borders.
Richard Durán, Ph.D.
Department of Modern Languages and Cultures