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American Sign language (also called ASL or Ameslan) is the first language of about half-a-million deaf or hard-of-hearing people in USA and Canada. It is also used by an unknown number of hearing individuals in family, community, or professional contexts.
The UN has declared September 23 International Day of Sign Languages.
Student interest in sign language is on the rise. The MLA reports that enrollments in many foreign languages on college campuses across the US have been stagnant or even decreased over the past decade, while the study of American Sign Language increased substantially over the same time period. In fact in 2016, ASL had third highest enrollments (bested only by Spanish and French).
The American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA) is a national professional organization of American Sign Language and Deaf studies teachers. Their mission is to perpetuate, preserve, and promote American Sign Language and Deaf Culture through excellence in teaching.
Sign languages are full-fledged languages, with their own linguistic properties, including grammar. Meaning is conveyed not only by gestures, but also facial expression, movement in space, body orientation, and other means.
There is not one “international” sign language. ASL is used in USA and Canada, but is different, for example, even from sign language used in other English-speaking countries, such as the UK, where BSL is used. France, Germany, Japan, Korea, and other countries, each have their own sign language. While there might be some commonalities, they are mutually unintelligible.
Deaf people have fought for inclusion and to have their culture recognized. The world’s attention was drawn to this in 1988 when students, faculty, and staff at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. (the world’s only university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing) objected to the board’s decision to appoint a hearing president. After a week of protests, the board’s appointee resigned and Irving King Jordan became the first deaf president of Gallaudet University.
It is more common today than it was 20 years ago for sign interpreters to be present at press conferences, lectures, concerts, and other events to make them more accessible to the deaf.
Although MIT does not currently offer American Sign Language as part of the curriculum, there have been occasional non-credit workshops, and student interest is increasing. Online resources are also offered at https://asl.mit.edu/.
In this video, an interpreter explains how deaf people are involved in the Black Lives Matter protests, and how she signs common words used in the movement.