All colleges and universities should be accepting and offering American Sign Language as a foreign language credit. Since colleges and universities have begun to do so, the gain of enrollment and interest in ASL courses increased by 16.4%. Learning foreign languages has intellectual, practical and economical rewards.  The diversity in America makes all foreign language exposure, including American Sign Language, vital and necessary in our schools.


“Language provides a unique perspective from which to view the history, politics, business, and social development of humankind, and in addition to offering a unique receptive and expressive communication skill, ASL has a place within this larger social science paradigm of understanding how humans interact. This is important given the current trend at universities worldwide to embrace globalization” (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 37).  As Easterbrooks notes, more and more people have become interested in American Sign Language (ASL), and it has become “an American ground swell” (Wilcox, 1991, p. 1). Colleges and universities are starting to see that the study of Deaf culture and ASL is becoming more and more prominent and this recongition is opening up more doors for ASL to be accepted as a modern/foreign language credit. People often think that ASL is based off the English language when that is not true at all (Easterbrooks & Johnson, n.d., p. 2). ASL is indeed a language and just because one knows the English language does not mean ASL is less than any other language (Easterbrooks, n.d., p. 1). Defining and discussing the background information of American Sign Language (ASL) and the Deaf culture will give a better understanding of why this is so important. To give everyone a deeper understanding of this issue at hand, we shall review the facts, statements, statistics, quotations as well as reasoning as to why ALL colleges and universities should accept and/or add American Sign Language as a modern/foreign language credit. We will also discuss why the colleges and universities should make it an integrated part of our education system.

What is Deaf Culture and American Sign Language?

Deaf Culture is unique in itself. One thing that makes it unique is the capitalized D in the word Deaf when discussing the Deaf culture. You should always capitalize the d in Deaf culture to indicate you’re pertaining to the socio-cultural definition of an individual. If the d is lowercase then it indicates an audiometric measurement of the ear’s response to sound pressure (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 44).  “Being Deaf is not only a medical condition, it is also a cultural matter. One needs to learn to be Deaf, just as one needs to learn what it means to be Egyptian or Figian” (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 44). In The rightful place of American Sign Language and Deaf culture in university curricula, culture is defined as the shared patterns and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affecting understandings that are learned through a process of socialization (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 44). The Deaf culture is about cognitively and socially relating to what they are gathering through the eyes. The Deaf culture have certain behavior patterns and interactions that are shared such as being straightforward with no filter. Just like any other culture their language, heritage, and expectations of the Deaf culture is passed down from generation to generation using American Sign Language (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 45). The study of Deaf Culture is a very important part of learning American Sign Language (ASL) and is integrated into the ASL classes. So what is American Sign Language?

American Sign Language is a language created by human culture over generations of interactions, and passed down from generation to generation” (Easterbrooks & Johnson, n.d., p. 1). American Sign Language (ASL) meets all criteria necessary to be considered a legitimate language. ASL is a fully developed language, complete with unique structures and processes having its own literature and culture. “The Linguistic Society of American affirms that sign languages used by Deaf communities are full-fledged languages with all the structural characteristics and range of expression of spoken languages. They have ruled-governed systems of articulation, word formation, sentence structure, and meaning” (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 38). American Sign Language is often mistaken for being fundamentally different than spoken languages just because it is visual more than oral (Wilcox, 1991, p. 1).  “It is a language because each country’s sign system is uniquely different from the others; it is comprised of aspects of phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics that are conveyed in a uniquely visual and spatial manners” (Easterbrooks, n.d., p. 5). So in other words, ASL functions just like any other foreign language does. The grammar of ASL is very different from English which is common in other foreign languages.  Many top-tier journals recognize ASL as an official language such as Brain and Language, Child Development, Discourse processes, American Annals of the Deaf, Deafness and Education International and so many more (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 41).  Where does ASL and the Deaf culture come from? Let’s dig into history and discuss the origin of American Sign Language and the culture it comes from.

Background of Deafness and The Deaf Culture

The Deaf Culture in the U.S. is traced back to the island of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 42). It is said that the first gene carrier arrived on the island in 1694 and over generations the community expanded. There was no way off the island so it continued to expand and eventually a unique form of Sign Language developed in this community, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 42).  MVSL was used as the main form of communication among hearing and deaf people on this island while the English language was secondary (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 42-43). In 1817, the first Deaf school, the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, was established by a Connecticut preacher named Thomas H. Gallaudet and another graduate named Laurent Clerc (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 43).  From there Deaf culture and Sign Language spread and expanded far and wide. MVSL merged with French Sign Language and created American Sign Language (Easterbrooks, n.d., p. 2). “According to the website of the World Federation of the Deaf, about 70 million people worldwide use a signed language as their primary language or mother tongue” (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 38).  ASL is not limited to just deaf people in today’s world. Hearing people also use it on a daily basis (Mitchell, Young, Bachleda, & Karchmer, 2006, p. 7). So why shouldn’t ASL be accepted as a foreign/modern language credit in our education system?

Why Should ALL colleges and universities (the education system) accept and/or add ASL as a foreign/modern language credit?

American Sign Language meets the curricular demands of supporting the internationalization of universities (Easterbrooks, n.d., p. 1). There is a notion that teaching ASL in the education system will cause a drop in enrollment in other languages and that is entirely false (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 49). The Modern Language Association (MLA) with support from the United States Department of Education gathers and analyzes data on undergraduate and graduate course enrollments in languages other than English in the United States colleges and universities.  MLA’s twenty-second survey Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education published in 2010 describes trends in language course enrollments.  MLA data was distributed by individual state as well as in eleven geographic regions.  The state of Georgia is one of eleven states positioned in the South Atlantic region which posted the highest increase (22.1%) of language course enrollments between

Christopher Patterson Teaching ASL at UGA

Christopher Patterson Teaching ASL at UGA (Photo taken by: Dot Paul)

2006 and 2009. MLA’s findings report American Sign Language (ASL) as the fourth most studied language in institutions of higher learning.  Nationally, enrollment in ASL grew from an enrollment of 1602 students in 1990 (the first year ASL data was collected) to a student enrollment of 91,763 in 2009. Between 2006 and 2009, the MLA report noted a double-digit gain (16.4%) of student enrollment in ASL courses (Easterbrooks, n.d., p.4).  There is also the data indicating the rising concomitant undergraduate student enrollment in ASL courses.  Additionally, ASL was among the languages demonstrating growth in graduate level ASL course enrollment. So it is clear that interest and studies in the foreign languages department has increased since ASL was added to some of the colleges and universities as an allowed credit (Easterbrooks, n.d., p.5). In fact, ASL studies have caused students to develop an interest in learning other languages and are more likely to take a traditional, spoken language (Wilcox, 1991, p. 2).

Many colleges and universities recognize the study of American Sign Language and Deaf culture as legitimate academic pursuit and accept ASL in fulfillment of foreign language requirements. American University, Clark University, Florida State University, Georgetown University, Purdue University, Stanford University, University of Georgia and University of Hawaii are just a few of MANY colleges that accept ASL as a foreign language but notice I said many, not all. What is necessary and should be required is for all colleges and universities to accept ASL as a modern/foreign language and to accept that ASL can and should be taught in classrooms. All colleges and universities should also offer ASL as a foreign language credit.  For the past ten years, Sherman Wilcox, professor and chair of the Center for Linguistics of the University of New Mexico, has kept track of the trend to accept and teach ASL as a foreign language.  To date, Wilcox has compiled a list of 172 colleges and universities in 40 states which accept ASL as a foreign language.   In the South Atlantic region identified by the Modern Language Association, thirty-one universities are among those Wilcox has tracked. Not only that but major universities such as Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Manchester-England and more have recognized that American Sign Language have all of the generally accepted features of a language (Easterbrooks, 2013, p.39). Even states’ bills, laws or resolutions acknowledge ASL as a language and over 40 of them in fact, acknowledge it (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 40). Over 200 universities and colleges accept ASL as a foreign language credit and these are top ten, Ivy league and other important universities such as Purdue and Clemson (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 40). Not only that but teachers are required to take and pass certain credential testing in order to teach foreign languages and this is also the case to teach ASL. Credentials as well as meeting the standard when teaching a foreign language is required and this is so for ASL instructors as well (Easterbrooks, n.d., p. 3). “Recognition (or not) of ASL reveals a university’s unspoken biases and true stance on diversity. A strong ASL program can lead to many opportunities to learn about and develop sensitivity to cultures and internationalization by students, members of the faculty, and the University at large as it is a prime example of how cultures critically evaluate and develop their value system” (Easterbrooks, n.d., p. 5).  A strong ASL program will not only bring in more enrollment but it will also assist in diversity as well as cultural exposure. So it is clear that this should be a worldwide change in all of the colleges and universities.

Questions might arise to why American Sign Language is not housed at the Foreign Language department. It should be emphasized American Sign Language courses, currently at the College of Education under Communication Sciences and Special Education, should not be moved to the Foreign Language Department. While it is very critical for one to understand that American Sign Language should be recognized as a foreign language however, it is rather important to understand that the term foreign is outdated as indicated by the more current and inclusive terminology used by the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Language (ACTFL) and the Modern Language Association (MLA).  In fact, in its 2012 Annual Research Report, the ACTFL authors used the term foreign only two times (with the exception of the appended surveys) other than in the name of the organization, whereas they use the term “language” 67 times (e.g., “learning a language,” “technology in the language classroom,” “27% of students use their languages on the internet,” but not foreign language). The National Council Accrediting Teacher Education (NCATE) recognizes ACTFL as its SPA and by default to ACTFL, gives its tacit approval to the use of language or second language as opposed to foreign language. The Modern Language Association (http://www.mla.org), by its very name, recognizes that world language learning has a broad context. The Executive Council of the MLA posts a statement titled “Learning Another Language: Goals and Challenges.” Nowhere does this document state that the language must be “foreign.” Furthermore, by not using the term (and spirit of) “foreign”, we can be inclusive of U.S. learners who study the non-foreign languages of Navajo and Latin. So American Sign Language is best known as a modern language and not a foreign language. Some may even refer it to a second language. This is beneficial for colleges and universities because “The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages states that the opportunity to learn any second language is more important than the specific language that is learned since research shows that generally learning a third or fourth language is facilitated after learning a second.  The language offerings of a school or institution of higher education should reflect the needs and the interests of the communities and students they serve, as well as national and international needs” (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 47).  The more languages we learn, the easier it gets so it is important and vital for all colleges and universities to “acknowledge that ALL languages should be considered appropriate for students to learn” (Easterbrooks & Johnson, n.d., p. 2).

The ASL courses here at the University of Georgia are administered through the College of Education and not through the foreign language department at University of Georgia. Across many Universities in the United States, ASL courses have been taught in Colleges of Education, Departments of Linguistics, Speech & Hearing Sciences, and Modern and Second Languages. Where a particular university chooses to offer the study of ASL to its students is an administrative issue that should be debated and decided by respective program administrators, not a state body. If anything, many universities are promoting cross-disciplinary inquiry and would see such offerings “outside of traditional units” as a positive move.

Languages aren’t taught for just the intellectual rewards, but also for practical and economic reasons (Wilcox, 1991, p. 2). Students can obtain jobs and be able to use the foreign language or modern language that they studied in college. “[Learning ASL] enhances ones’ appreciation and understanding of a different language and culture, which is a key element of cross-cultural competence and understanding diversity” (Easterbrooks & Johnson, n.d., p. 4).  What is important is the appropriateness and rigor of the coursework, and the quality of the program and its instructors. “The study of signed languages provides a glimpse into ways that cultures differ even when they share a language” (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 41). Not only does it teach how cultures differ, it requires more advanced communication to understand the higher-order and abstract thinking skills that are reflected in modern/foreign languages (Easterbrooks, 2013, p. 43).


It is believed that the ACTFL and MLA statements support the acceptance of ASL, a bona fide, legitimate language, to meet modern/foreign/second/new/world language requirements and that Georgia institutions of higher learning should be able to manage the offering of ASL within their particular administrative structures as best fits the institution’s history and current needs. There are additional supporting documentations to support the argument that American Sign Language should be accepted as a “foreign” language and remain housed at University of Georgia’s College of Education can be found in the article in The rightful place of American Sign Language and Deaf culture in university curricula written by Dr. Susan Easterbrooks, which should be used to support the argument and why American Sign Language courses should be officially recognized and accepted for credit under Area D/Area 4 under the World Languages and Culture section at University of Georgia.  We are exposed to diversity daily and we are often reminded that the minority will soon overtake the population living in the United States. Minorities that speak other languages so students are developing a necessary skill if all languages are included in the modern/foreign language area in the education system. Not only that but students who learn a foreign language “commonly find that their perceptions of themselves and the world are richer than their monolingual peers. The study of a language, culture, and literature different than their own propels students beyond the limits of their own world.  In all respects, ASL affords students the same challenges and rewards as more traditional foreign languages” (Wilcox, 1991, p. 2). ASL is already accepted in high schools in Georgia as a foreign language so would not it be reasonable and smart to extend it further to the colleges and universities as well? The ACTFL and the MLA conclude that essentially all languages should be supported in the education environment. All the evidence and facts supports ASL being accepted as a foreign language so what is stopping us from making it a permanent part of our education system?



Easterbrooks, S. (2013). The rightful place of American Sign Language and Deaf culture in university curricula. NECTFL REVIEW: A Journal for K – 16+Foreign Language Educators, (71), 37-50. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/Dana/Downloads/Easterbrooks%20ASL%20NECTFL_Review_71%20(1).pdf

Easterbrooks, S. (n.d.). Summary of Brief: American Sign Language and Deaf Culture.

Easterbrooks, S. R., & Johnson, E. J. (n.d.). Rebuttal to FLAAC Rejection of Georgia State University’s Request to Add American Sign Language for Modern/Foreign Language Credit.

Goldberg, D., Looney, D., & Lusin, N. (2015). Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2013. Retrieved from The Modern Language Association website: https://apps.mla.org/pdf/2013_enrollment_survey.pdf

Lane, H. L., Pillard, R., & Hedberg, U. (2011). The people of the eye: Deaf ethnicity and ancestry. New York, United States: Oxford University Press.

Mitchell, R., Young, T., Bachleda, B., & Karchmer, M. (2006). How Many People Use ASL in the United States? Sign Language Studies6. Retrieved from http://research.gallaudet.edu/Publications/ASL_Users.pdf

Patterson, C., Leffler, B., & Teesdale, D. (n.d.). Justification Statement #2: American Sign Language Courses to remain at College of Education.

Patterson, C., Leffler, B., & Teesdale, D. (n.d.). Justification Statement #1: American Sign Language Recognized as World Language.

Wilcox, S. (1991). ASL as a Foreign Language Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www.unm.edu/~wilcox/UNM/facts.html