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  • The Case for Heritage ASL Instruction for Hearing Heritage Signers
  • Su Kyong Isakson (bio)

This article puts forward a solution to the impending shortage of culturally and linguistically competent interpreters: the education of heritage signers as heritage language learners. It examines the current landscape of ASL as a course of study and the difficulties heritage signers report when they begin learning ASL. However, if we consider heritage signers as heritage language learners, borrowing research from heritage learners of Spanish (Valdés 2001), ASL instructors would be able to consider the factors known to contribute to heritage language competence and make use of them in their teaching. In examining two of the five pedagogically relevant factors known to correlate with heritage language competence (Beaudrie, Ducar, and Potowski 2014), the article illustrates ways in which heritage signers' language acquisition patterns differentiate them from heritage speakers. One is the manner of intergenerational language transmission between a nonnative signing deaf parent and a child. In a previous survey of heritage signers, 87.5 percent reported that their deaf parents were born to nonnative signing parents (Isakson 2016). Thus, unlike most heritage speakers, an overwhelming majority of hearing heritage signers receive nonnative signing input at home. Furthermore, the issue of understanding heritage signer competence is complicated by the bimodal language mixing of English, ASL, and sign systems. Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents reported communicating with their parents using some degree of language mixing. Second, throughout the United States, few opportunities exist for attending bilingual ASL-English schools and heritage ASL courses for heritage signers. For primary and secondary education, [End Page 385] federal funding that is earmarked for deaf and hard of hearing students precludes hearing heritage signers from enrolling in existing bilingual programs. Additionally, postsecondary ASL course content is reported as ill-fitted to their needs and their experiences as heritage language learners as marginalizing. The article concludes with a discussion of the formal classroom instructional methods used with heritage signers and of the informal educational opportunities that community-based heritage language schools can offer.

To meet an ever-growing demand for interpreters who are both linguistically and culturally competent, interpreter education programs are working to produce interpreters in two- and four-year programs. Nonetheless, little to no attention has been paid to educating hearing heritage signers as heritage language learners (HLL), a term used to describe heritage signers or speakers who choose to study their heritage language in the classroom. A report (based on 313 survey responses and twenty focus group participants) detailing the experiences of heritage signers in interpreter education programs reveals two overall themes (Shafer and Cokely 2016). First, many heritage signers believe their educational needs are not being met by the basic courses in American Sign Language (ASL) that their programs offer. They note that they benefit much more from courses on ASL linguistics and classifiers and from lessons designed to expand their vocabulary. Second, heritage signers reported feeling isolated and singled out, and criticized and misjudged for their language competence, language variation, and perceived "unfair advantage" in their interpreter education programs (ibid., 7–8). These issues are not new. They have been loosely discussed by interpreters and interpreter educators for some time, but only in the last few years has a scholarly examination of the education of heritage signers within the framework of heritage language learners emerged (Williamson 2015; Isakson 2016; Shafer and Cokely 2016).

To educate heritage signers, whose native language is a signed language, as heritage language learners, we must begin by revisiting our understanding of their acquisition of American Sign Language. This article examines survey data collected from hearing children of predominately nonnative signing deaf parents, for whom ASL is a heritage language. I first discuss variations found (through self-reported data) [End Page 386] in the heritage language competence of second-generation hearing heritage signers. After establishing the linguistic environment in which hearing heritage signers acquire sign language and several reasons for the linguistic variation they exhibit, I turn to the instruction of these signers in American Sign Language and interpreter education programs.

This article demonstrates the need not only for interpreter training programs and for specialized instruction for heritage language learners in...


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pp. 385-411
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