The UN has declared September 23 International Day of Sign Languages.
Little is known about historical sign languages globally, but from the 16th century on, when Pedro Ponce de León (1520–1584) is recorded to have developed the first manual alphabet, sign languages have increasingly attracted the interest of linguists and other scholars.
Sign languages across the world are full-fledged natural languages, with their own linguistic properties, including grammar and lexicon. Meaning is conveyed not only by manual articulations, but also facial expression, movement in space, body orientation, and other communicative elements. Although International Sign (IS) is used at international meetings and events, vernacular sign languages are more commonly used across the globe and now number in the hundreds. China, France, Germany, Japan, Korea, and other countries each have their own sign language, as do autonomous communities such as Catalonia; Indo-Pakistani Sign Language (IPSL) is currently the most widely used sign language in the world. There are even regional differences, such as between American Sign Language (ASL), used in the US and Canada, and British Sign Language (BSL) used in the UK. Black American Sign Language (BASL) is another linguistic variant that is often overlooked. There are two official dialects of Chinese Sign Language (CSL): Southern (Shanghai) CSL and Northern (Beijing) CSL. The International Day of Sign Languages celebrates this rich diversity.
Global Languages is excited to announce plans to offer a non-credit American Sign Language (ASL) class at MIT in IAP 2022 (details to be announced), to be open to members of the MIT community. American Sign Language is the first language of about half-a-million deaf or hard-of-hearing people in the US and Canada. It is also used by an unknown number of hearing individuals in family, community, or professional contexts.
Student interest in sign languages is on the rise. The Modern Language Association (MLA) reports that enrollments in many foreign languages on college campuses across the US have plateaued or even decreased over the past decade, while the study of American Sign Language increased substantially over the same time period. In fact, as of 2016 (the last MLA report) ASL had the third highest enrollments (topped only by Spanish and French) in higher education.
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.
Deaf people have long 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.
The MIT-NAD Agreement, announced in 2020, marks MIT’s commitment to providing captioning for publicly posted educational and programming content in order to guarantee accessibility to deaf and hard-of-hearing members of the public in accordance with federal law. This marks an important step toward inclusion and belonging.
There is more realization today than before that hearing people should not impose their version of language or culture onto deaf people. For example, a recent New York Times piece discusses how an individual’s name sign is created, and provides insight into just one element of Deaf Culture in America.
For those interested in ASL and Deaf Culture, check out the MIT website American Sign Language and Deaf Culture @ MIT.