By Chandler Winston | Guest Columnist
My goal in writing this response to Dr. Richard Duran’s lariat letter on Oct. 3 was to determine the purpose and value of studying a second language at Baylor, examine how that is achieved and determine exactly why or why not American Sign Language meets those requirements.
Duran began his argument by saying, “American Sign Language is precisely that – American,” claiming there is “nothing international about American Sign Language.” This is entirely false. ASL is the main sign language used in Canada. It is also used in much of West Africa (Cambridge University). Furthermore, Duran points out the multitude of signed languages worldwide. While this argument is irrelevant, seeing as there is also a multitude of spoken languages worldwide, it also ignores the fact that many of those signed languages are similar, which allows ASL users to be able to facilitate communication, at least to an extent, with multiple different signed languages. Ghanian Sign Language shares over 80% of the same signs as ASL (Cambridge University).
Duran’s response goes on to explain the purpose of teaching modern languages and their cultures and why ASL does not fulfill such purposes; however, his supporting arguments prove to be false, yet again. He explains Baylor’s overarching goals to “increase opportunities for students to develop cultural competency for worldwide leadership through foreign language acquisition, study abroad opportunities, and internationally focused research.”
One implication here is that ASL students do not have the opportunity to conduct international research. The modern languages and culture department’s mission statement states the department’s goal for “international language-related scholarships (e.g., Fulbright).” Fulbright offers a scholarship that sends deaf studies and ASL students to Italy for the purpose of conducting research. It is a requirement that the student be proficient in ASL (fulbrightonline.org).
Secondly, the modern languages and culture department encourages study abroad experiences. Duran claims studying abroad “is one of the most enriching experiences a student can have.” Multiple universities, such as Rochester and Gallaudet offer ASL-specific study abroad programs at the University of Paris and various other international universities.
Another point highly emphasized by Baylor is worldwide service. While ASL students can serve within our borders, they, too, can serve outside our borders. Haiti Deaf Academy is one example of an ASL mission trip in which students can participate and serve, all while using ASL (haitideafacademy.com).
Duran claims “this attention to global awareness is not unique to Baylor,” but rather, is shared by “every major institution nationwide.” Yet over 180 universities, with this same global awareness, acknowledge ASL as a foreign language (Gallaudet University). Of the universities who do not accept it, 84% indicated their knowledge of ASL as poor (Sinett), which causes me to question such “global awareness.”
The last, and arguably most stressed, emphasis of the modern languages and culture department is cultural exposure and “competency,” which Duran claims ASL is lacking. In his response, he claims deaf individuals do not have their own culture: they are “nonetheless largely American.”
Is the argument here that smaller, minority groups do not exist under the over-arching American culture? You cannot make the argument that just because a group exists within America, it cannot be considered its own cultural entity. Many Americans identify with smaller cultural groups separate from American culture. In our interview, Duran acknowledged Navajo Indians as having their own culture. Do they not exist within America?
So the question then is really matter of defining culture. Duran says culture is “comprised of literature, the arts, perspectives or mentalities, a way of life.” Culture can also be described as “the sum of the distinctive characteristics of a people’s way of life” (Lingenfelter).
Just as French has its own art and theater, so does ASL. Chuck Baird, a well known and beloved deaf artist, was a notable founder of the De’VIA art movement: an aesthetic of deaf Culture in which visual art conveys a deaf worldview. deaf West is a deaf theater that nurtures the talents of deaf actors, writers, and directors by performing original and classical works simultaneously in ASL and English, sharing the legacy of deaf people’s language and culture.
When discussing specific characteristics unique to French culture, Duran gave me an example of how French people stand close together when conversing. deaf culture also has its own rule regarding conversational distance: deaf individuals tend to stand further apart when conversing. In fact, deaf culture, like all world cultures, has its own unique set of rules regarding things such as greetings, leave-taking, sharing of information, and discourse style.
Duran told me the goal of the modern languages and culture department is to open our eyes to another world. Refusing to acknowledge the many aspects unique to deaf culture proves a lack of “culture competency,” and I am in turn forced to conclude that their eyes are still closed.
Duran concludes his argument by stating, “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.” I would argue that by continuing to close our minds to the unique intercultural experience offered by learning ASL, the real risk is depriving Baylor’s future “global leaders” of a world of rich diversity that lies within our borders. Since Duran himself admitted that ASL is indeed a modern language (and 60 years of linguistic research proves this to be true), and because deaf culture proves to be a culture in every sense of the word, Baylor’s refusal to accept American Sign Language is nothing more than participation in behaviors of institutional oppression.
Chandler Winston is a junior communication sciences and disorders student from Thousand Oaks, Calif.