Speech given at a high school in 2015

The following is a speech I gave at a public high school’s world languages ceremony in 2015. Read the article I wrote about this experience.

Language, as we know firsthand, is at the very heart of every civilization, and has been ever since the beginning of humankind. Whether it be gestures or full-blown language, language has endured changes, evolution, abuse and even death, or linguicide — and nowhere is that more evident than in signed languages.

Allow me to back up a bit and give you a bit of background. I am second-generation Deaf, which means my parents are also deaf. My husband is third-generation, so that means our four deaf children are fourth generations — and we have over 50 deaf relatives on both sides of the family in terms of cousins, uncles and aunts, grandparents and lots of other relatives I probably don’t want to meet. That translates to a long history of using sign language in our family, dating back to the early 1900s. In essence, we’ve had sign language for over a hundred years. As Deaf people, we recognize the immense value of language, and being able to connect with each other through words, spoken or signed.

Today, American Sign Language, ASL, like many other languages, is recognized on so many levels. It’s one of the fastest-growing languages in the U.S., and is believed to be the third most used language in the U.S. Sounds good, right?

Well, let me give you a bit of history. Although sign language has been around since primitive times, and the earliest recorded drawing of the fingerspelled alphabet dates back to the 1500s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Dr. William Stokoe, a hearing man who wasn’t very fluent in sign language, did research that proved ASL was a bona fide language, separate from English.

I remember growing up telling people, and even writing in my research papers for school, that ASL was broken English, that it was abbreviated English. I can’t believe I actually said that, because this was during the 1980s and early 1990s. ASL research already existed. Why didn’t anyone tell me otherwise? Why was I never taught that ASL had its own rich vocabulary, syntax and other properties?

I’ll tell you why. It’s because for centuries, sign language has been looked upon as a language for animals, as primitive, as unsavory, and any other host of adjectives. This primarily has to do with the notion that spoken language is superior. This is only natural; anything different from us is considered strange, funny, fascinating, or even beautiful. We all experience xenophobia to different degrees. That’s why learning new languages is so important, so that we can learn about other cultures, other peoples, and each other.

The problem is that signed language is often not considered another language. Rather, people mistakenly believe it’s a basic form of gesturing, and a direct representation of English on the hands. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

As students of language yourself, you know how challenging grammar in other languages can be. This is equally true for sign language, whether it’s American Sign Language or French Sign Language or any other signed language. As an aside, sign language isn’t universal, if you were wondering.

So, back to why nobody told me ASL was a stand-alone, distinct language from English. . . there is a long history behind this, and it involves Alexander Graham Bell. Yeah, that one. The same guy who invented our telephone, or rather, he was the first to claim the patent. It’s now known that he wasn’t actually the first inventor, but he got the patent first.

Bell was the son of a deaf mother, and is said to have been very fluent in sign language. He later married a deaf woman, who did not sign. Nobody really knows why, but Bell became very adamant that sign language was not the way go. He became a steadfast proponent of banishing sign language from all education. He also believed that deaf people should not marry, and actually was a huge supporter of eugenics, the social movement claiming to improve the genetic features of human populations through selective breeding and sterilization in order to create a superior society. He even served as president of the National Eugenics Society.

Many people find that astonishing, and I do, too. How could someone who signed fluently, had deaf relatives and was such a brilliant man have such warped perspectives? Even if times were different back then, it’s still shocking.

Bell had a pivotal role in something that has had major ripple effects to this day. He was one of 164 delegates to the 1880 International Congress on Education of the Deaf, which was held in Milan, Italy. At this conference, it was voted that sign language would be banned from education in favor of teaching deaf children to speak. Out of the 164 delegates, guess how many were deaf? Only one.

So, as a result of this ban, Deaf teachers and other deaf professionals lost their jobs if they could not speak. Deaf children were raised without access to sign language, often being punished if they even as much moved their fingers, and this lack of access caused great delays in language development, in later-life opportunities and much more. The effects are being felt even today, 135 years later — all because of the notion that spoken language is superior to signed language.

Around the country, and in many other countries, deaf schools — which are not the stereotypical institutions you think of where you “abandon” people with disabilities or mental illnesses; they’re actually beautiful, flourishing places where culture, language and tradition are preserved from generation to generation — are closing down for many reasons, but especially because of the perceived cost. More and more school districts are favoring mainstreaming because they think it saves money, when in reality, it causes a lot more harm for so many children in terms of language access. I’m not saying mainstreaming is bad; it’s not always bad. It worked for me, but I wish I knew back then what I know today.

There is also a massive spoken language — in other words, no signs — movement underway around the nation. More and more doctors are urging parents to shun sign language and to focus on spoken language. Spoken language does work for some, but not for all. What happens is that in 20 years, many of these deaf babies raised without sign language, come to the deaf community with anger, frustration and struggles because they had limited language access. This has happened time after time, and despite the most massive efforts, signed language has persisted.

With my four children — who are ages 7, 6, almost 5 and 3.5 — I saw firsthand just how naturally their language developed. They began babbling in sign language at maybe three months, and then began making words when they were six months old. It didn’t change with each child; each child hit the same language milestones in their first year of life. I have many examples that support how bilingualism is really beneficial.

When my oldest was 17 months old, she told me about a dream she had about a wolf inside a pumpkin. I was astounded, because that was from a children’s book we had read a few days before. For her to be able to describe such an abstract concept — dreams — and be so detailed in what it was about was just mind-blowing. Yet, because she was not yet fluent in English at that age, she would have been incorrectly perceived as language-delayed. Today, she’s seven and reading and writing at two grades above level. My other children are the same; all are above grade level for language in both ASL and English. This is no surprise for those who are familiar with bilingualism with any two languages; bilingualism has consistently shown to help young children acquire languages and get ahead in many areas.

With the proliferation of sign language classes and programs around the country, it’s sadly ironic that more and more deaf people — specifically children — are being denied access to sign language, which is their natural language. All this stems from the mistaken notion that one language is superior to another. Signed languages are not the only victims of this, though. This is also happening with many other languages in the United States, all because of the belief that English should be the only language.

And this, my friends, is exactly why language access is so crucial for any child, deaf or hearing. Unfortunately, because being deaf is still looked upon as a disability instead of a linguistic minority or cultural minority, millions of children around the world are being denied sign language. We must cease the belief that any one language is superior to another, like English being superior to Spanish.

So, what does this have to do with you? Why should you care? The answer is simple. You are given the privilege of choosing to study one language, any language and making yourself bilingual or even multilingual. And you can do this using your natural language. This same privilege needs to be given to deaf children, just like I was given that privilege. There are many ways you can do this as a world language student.

Say you’re learning Italian or French, and you go to Italy or France and run into a deaf child. What would you do? Or maybe you have a deaf child yourself someday. How would you respond? May I suggest that as you study your language of choice, you also learn the sign language of that country? Learn about sign language, learn about the glorious culture of Deaf people not only in America, but in other countries as well, and help promote the fact that signed language is as important as your language of choice. By ensuring that signed language persists despite blatant modern-day efforts to abolish it and misconceptions, you are helping bring language access to every deaf person out there. Linguicide is not acceptable for any language, and one way to combat this is as you continue to study languages, embrace their peoples, histories and cultures, and celebrate all that the language stands for.

Thank you for allowing me to share the importance of preserving any and all languages without oppression or notions of superiority. Congratulations on this wonderful journey you have embarked on into world language learning.

This presentation can not be copied, reproduced, or redistributed without the written consent of the author.

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