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97 Chapter 3 American Sign Language, Language Planning, and Language Policy The utmost extreme to which tyranny can go when its mailed hand descends upon a conquered people is the proscription of their national language, and with the utmost rigor several generations are required to eradicate it. But all the attempts to suppress signs, wherever tried, have most signally failed. After a hundred years of proscription . . . they still flourish, and will continue to flourish to the end of time. “What heinous crime have the deaf been guilty of that their language should be proscribed?”—Robert P. McGregor, first president of the National Association of the Deaf (Quoted in Lane, 1984, p. xvii) ASL, as linguistically defined, has nowhere near the power of English for receptive OR expressive purposes. ASL has its own merits, some of them outshining spoken language, but anywhere near as powerful as English for education, commerce, and all-around communication purposes it most certainly is not. (Stewart, 1992, p. 135) American Sign Language (ASL) emerged at the hands of Laurent Clerc and his students in the first quarter of the nineteenth century in Hartford, Connecticut, at what was then the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, and is today the American School for the Deaf (ASD).1 Harlan Lane, historically and narratively reconstructing Clerc’s life story, has Clerc explain the process as follows: I gave lessons in sign language after hours to Reverend Stansbury, to new teachers as they joined us, and, later, to the many hearing teachers who came to the asylum to study with me and then return to their home states to teach the deaf. In these lessons and the classroom I used French Sign Language amended for American practices; for example, I had no signs for various articles of clothing and food unknown in France and these I took 98 : c h a p t e r 3 from my pupils. . . . Gradually my sign language underwent expansion and modification in the hands of my American pupils. (Lane, 1984, p. 226) Given what we know about the early history and evolution of ASL (see Armstrong & Wilcox, 2003; Baynton, 1993, 1996, 2002), such an account seems only too reasonable. In spite of its relatively late beginnings compared to what might be seen as its “mother” language, French Sign Language, as well as to a number of other well-documented natural sign languages, ASL today is arguably among the most socially and educationally well-established, and is definitely the most lexically developed and linguistically studied, natural sign language in the world. In spite of Larry Stewart’s claims quoted above, to the contrary, ASL is indeed as powerful as English, if one’s concerns are linguistic and communicative in nature. To be sure, if Stewart is simply observing that the vast majority of people in the United States use English in all aspects of their daily lives, and are monolingual native speakers of English, and that this means that users of ASL (and, of course, of all other languages ) are therefore at a disadvantage, this is of course perfectly true.2 However, I do not believe that that is his point at all. Stewart is making a far more powerful claim than that there are power differentials in U.S. society related to language. Rather, he is making what are factual and empirical claims about what can be communicated in ASL, and on these matters, he is simply in error, and there is a half-century of well-conducted research to prove it. ASL serves as both something of a model and a goal for many deaf people around the world when they think about what they would like to achieve for their own sign languages (though as we will see in Chapter 5, this is by no means universally true; some deaf communities around the world are significantly ahead of the U.S. in terms of language rights and many other facets of language policy). In this chapter, we will examine the specific case of ASL with respect to language planning and language policy. The chapter will begin with an historical overview of language planning and policy efforts related to ASL and will then move to contemporary issues and developments in such efforts. American Sign Language, Planning, and Policy : 99 ASL AND LANGUAGE PLANNING IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY Although a number of works deal with ASL in the nineteenth century, and particularly with efforts to suppress it...


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