Communication Theory, Cognitive Sense Analogues, and American Sign Language as a Foreign Language

UPDATE: Wonderful news! The ad hoc committee members in favor of accepting ASL as a legitimate foreign language, with all institutional benefits that implies, were successful in making their case to the SUNY Student Mobility Steering Committee and Office of the Provost. My opinion piece, presented here, appeared in Appendix E of materials submitted by the subcommittee. It’s an honor to have contributed to such a worthy cause, small though my role was. Photos included at the bottom of the post.

Please note, in this piece I do not claim expertise in ASL or in linguistics. This is an opinion piece which I wrote to be consulted by an academic committee.

As an English professor whose concentration is in medieval literature and language theory, I bring a perspective that I believe illuminates some important reasons why ASL should be regarded as a foreign language. My academic research in the connection between the senses as an analogue for knowledge is primarily the expertise I draw upon below. Personal experience also informs the perspective I set forward here. I myself am mildly hard of hearing in one ear, but my grandmother, with whom I live, is severely hard of hearing, and struggles with conversation in person and on the phone even with sophisticated hearing aids. The argument I provide is that, because of its integrity as a language in terms of the classical paradigm of language structure (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and because of the cognitive shift in understanding required by someone from the hearing community (including a deaf or hard of hearing individual previously unexposed to ASL) to truly learn an essentially different way of processing experience, ASL ought to be considered fundamentally as a foreign language. I will, after elucidating this argument, include responses to some objections.

In my academic work, I focus on the intersection of two relevant sites of inquiry: the trivium and the sensorium. The trivium, in the classic liberal arts tradition, are the comprehensive arts of language, which are grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Put simply, grammar is the study of correct use of language; logic is the use of language in a valid and sound chain of reasoning; rhetoric is the use of language in a persuasive way to produce emotions or persuasion in the audience. From an ancient, medieval, and Renaissance perspective (and one endorsed by many modern liberal arts pedagogues), the capacity to write is a powerful tool for refining these disciplines, but what constitutes the essential nature of a particular language is the most natural mode of communication combined with the best practices for communication within that mode. Spoken words, in most communities, therefore constitute a primary quality in understanding a given language because writing is an artificial technology which refines possible discourse. What is primary about language, then, is not its capacity to produce writing, but its capacity to produce community through its unique structures of grammar, logic, and rhetoric (which is why Braille or computer coding, for example, may be communicative but are not truly independent languages). As Miriam Joseph explains in The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric, “Communication, as the etymology of a word signifies, results in something possessed in common; it is a oneness shared” (Joseph 7). It is hard to imagine a deeper oneness shared between people than by words they agree upon as the ones which constitute goodness, truth, and beauty, and by which they make themselves and their ideas known to each other.

That being the case, a deaf person who learns to communicate through ASL is not learning a replacement “basic communication” instead of American English (or whatever other spoken language). They must learn the most natural word order to express ideas (which is different from English word order), a simple but powerful obstacle to overcome. It is a challenge similar to the difficulty English speakers might have, for example, in learning German word order or a case system in Latin (both of which I have studied and, in the case of Latin, designed a placement test for Saint Louis University’s Latin program). This type of cognitive shift also implies a different approach to logical expression, which means that ASL diversifies the experience of fitting meta-discursive ideas together. Furthermore, because of the stress of physical movement to create emphasis, intimacy, or other expressions, ASL exhibits a motor-based rhetoric, meaning that persons signing to each other must be sensitive to emotional cues and volitional requests or demands just as in any spoken rhetorical situation. This means that an ASL interpreter is not simply “transcribing” a spoken talk as a stenographer does, for example, but actually translating it – they must accommodate, in real time, not only the words but the ideas and emphases of the speaker to the communicative norms of grammar, logic, and rhetoric which are particular to ASL. Such an attempted “transcription” would be impossibly slow and complex to the point of uselessness, because ASL does not function at the most basic level the way a spoken language does. Nonetheless, ASL interpretations are as rich and communicative as the spoken utterances they relay, and as such are independent translations rather than simple non-verbal reiterations. This leads, I believe, to understanding the foreignness of ASL, as distinct from, say, English.

As someone who has translated from several languages (particularly ancient languages such as Latin and Old English), I am familiar with the notion of something being “lost in translation.” This is why learning a foreign language is particularly useful – the nuances of meaning are deeply particular to the form of communication, and so reading Homer’s Iliad in Greek cannot be replaced by reading it in English (even if it is still a worthwhile endeavor, especially if the translator is good at her job). In speaking with Kathleen Vollmer, a deaf professor of ASL at Erie Community College, it became immediately clear to me that this “lost in translation” problem (symptomatic to my mind of encounter with foreign modes of thought) is one which affects, mutually, communication between deaf ASL signers and hearing English speakers. It is not simply that deaf people cannot hear words from the hearing community, which I discovered in my own interactions with my grandmother when she received improved hearing aids. Oftentimes, she can hear me, but cannot understand me, because the pure sensory information of sound requires a strategy of interpretation which, as a result of us learning this information during infancy, we do not even realize we are employing. I have to adopt different cues (often with certain gestures or facial cues) that are not a language but are communicative aids to putting my grandmother’s listening anxieties to rest before she can hear me. I must also speak differently in order to accommodate how she thinks language works, which even as a hard of hearing person (rather than a deaf person) is nonetheless significantly different from those without significant hearing impairments think it does. For example, my grandmother takes offense when I am confused by what she means when she mispronounces a word, because she does not think the quality of its sound but the quality of her intent that controls meaning. Helping her to assimilate new knowledge requires a mode of explanation that must shift not because she cannot hear me (she can, with her hearing aids), but because she thinks of the language game as primarily about emotional successes or failures of sympathy (visibly relayed through gesture and facial cues) rather than about exchange of ideas. Once I adopt her mode of interaction, I can help her to understand the ideas. She does not know ASL, but she already exhibits what I would say is a different cognitive strategy (manifested in lip reading instead of listening, for example, even when she can hear my utterances) than I, as essentially a member of the hearing community, normally use. Events like going to church or social gatherings are highly stressful (she is avoiding going to a Bingo night with a friend even as I write this) not because she cannot “hear,” but in her own words, “those experiences just feel so odd to me – they stress me out.” She lacks comfort not with hearing (which she can do), but hearing-based patterns of cognition.

The point of cognitive strategies as related to sense analogues for thought is not a minor one, and has been the subject of much intellectual inquiry. The term “Enlightenment,” for example, one used in a variety of religious and philosophical traditions, uses visual cues for the sense of sight to explain what it is to understand something. We “throw light on subjects,” or provide a “vision” of our goals for an academic institution. But as the scholar Walter J. Ong has pointed out, these sense analogues for thought processes are, though rooted in human biology, also a matter of social variability:

It is useful to think of cultures in terms of the organization of the sensorium. By the sensorium we mean here the entire sensory apparatus as an operational complex. The differences in culture which we have just suggested can be thought of as differences in the sensorium, the organization of which is in part determined by culture while at the same time it makes culture… for abstract thinking the proximity senses—smell, taste, and in a special way touch (although touch concerns space as well as contact and is thus simultaneously concrete and abstract)—must be minimized in favor of the more abstract hearing and sight. Growing up, assimilating the wisdom of the past, is in great part learning how to organize the sensorium productively for intellectual purposes… The sensorium is a fascinating focus for cultural studies. Given sufficient knowledge of the sensorium exploited within a specific culture, one could probably define the culture as a whole in virtually all its aspects. (Ong, The Presence of the Word 6)

It makes sense that human communities would arrange their culture making strategies around the senses of hearing and sight – they cannot help it, because as a pair they are the fundamental way we learn about something without having to risk touching or tasting it (which could be fatal in the wrong circumstances). But as Ong discusses elsewhere, as an oral culture (one which does not have written words) attempts to understand something, they would not classify information the way a post-writing culture would. They would see, for example, wood, fire, flint and meat as a reasonable group (because they all imply the same action), but would not see hammers, axes, and flashlights under the same category (they are tools, we would say) because categorical thinking is more highly developed in a print-based world. More on this can be seen in Ong’s Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word, but the point here is that even between hearing communities, the one oral and the one based on the written word, fundamental cognitive differences exist not only in the structure of communication, but in the relationships conceived between those structures (the grammar and rhetoric), and thus what will seem like a persuasive idea (rhetoric).

It is specious, therefore, to think that the fundamental marker of foreignness of a language is rooted in geography. I imagine that a Native American language such as Tuscaroran, which is only recently being codified into a written language here at Niagara University, and despite the appellation “American” would not, I think, be disbarred from the reasonable recognition that Tuscaroran is a foreign language to American English speakers. Advances in ASL in the U.S. and Canada, for that matter, might contribute to sign languages being developed further on the global scene, given our visible status on the international scene. The foreignness of cognitive strategy becomes apparent even in the most basic of interactions between hearing and deaf individuals. Without even thinking of it, I told Professor Vollmer that I was “listening” to her concerns – what I meant (although I also meant that I was hearing her) was that I was intently regarding her ideas with respect and sympathy. We load so much significance into that word – when we tell someone that we “hear” them, we often mean something like, “I can feel the persuasive power of what you’re saying,” even if we do not agree. Should it be argued that foreign languages are studied into appreciate a diversity which expands beyond our horizons, then the cognitive shift required in moving from a hearing-based to a deaf-based way of communication (which is also a way of contemplation and community building) achieves that end in a way that does not merely extend beyond American shorelines but beyond cognitive biases we may harbor about what constitutes real intellectual work. Deafness is not like other disabilities, which require accommodations, often in the form of particular tools; ASL is not a tool, but a dynamic facility of expression which can enrich even a hearing person’s conception of communication. It would seem strange to argue that deaf culture is not exotic enough because it is formed within a particular region, when something as fundamental as a culture’s cognitive patterns, which necessitate a different approach to expression, is what is at stake in learning ASL.

Concerns, furthermore, that conferring the dignity of a foreign language to ASL will harm other foreign languages strike me as unnecessarily alarmist and even ableist (discrimination in favor of able-bodied people). The only reason someone might take ASL instead of Spanish, for example, under this view is that they are under the illusion that ASL is “easier” than Spanish, which given the reasons above (the differences in grammar between ASL and American English, and the fundamental shift in mental strategies involved in communication) is not the case, as any first year ASL learner (such as my mother) realizes immediately when communicating with someone fluent in the language. Advocacy of the importance of learning foreign languages is the responsibility of those who teach them, and they do so well. Student choices in such matters in any case are typically overseen by advisors, and advisors will be able to help students to decide which foreign language is best suited for their particular career goals. In many cases, this will not cause students en masse to stop taking other foreign languages in favor of ASL, especially if part of the rationale for giving ASL foreign language status is that it presents the type of challenging cerebral efforts involved in learning a fundamentally different way of communicating, which it is. Furthermore, any concern that more people with facility for ASL would harm the job market for ASL interpreters would be an argument that could be applied as easily to any other foreign language, and yet it is not used against the idea of having a baseline foreign language requirement to preserve the job market for French ambassadors or translators. Such an argument would, again, be based only on the naïve assumption that ASL is easy and that basic facility with it equips one as much as someone who has devoted a major or minor to it (which is, to be clear, not a possibility). A skillset does not equal a career, but may enrich that career, and just as it is good for the Spanish speaking community in America for more students to have some working knowledge of Spanish (however basic), it is good for the deaf community to have awareness of their culture and modes of communication manifested in a less marginalized way.

Finally, the foreign language requirement stresses in most case not only speaking and listening in a given language, but reading and writing. It may be argued that reading and writing do not exist in ASL and therefore that it does not have the depth or rigor of learning other foreign languages. But writing is in fact an externalization of auditory processes, as has been discussed by Walter Ong in “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought.” The illusion that words, such as the words you are reading now, are fixed and silenced is an illusion of imaginative habit, because in fact every time you read you sound a word to yourself. The neural systems which allow members of the hearing community to hear are still at work when reading. Currently, writing is primarily a visual extension of an auditory facility, and so of vital importance to learn in other foreign languages, but preventing ASL from being a language on the basis that it does not operate like a hearing-based language is effectively to bar it from foreign language status on the basis that it is foreign from cognitive strategies familiar to hearing communities.

Perhaps a more rigorous ASL writing system, along with an improved ASL curriculum, texts, certification, and other foreign language benchmarks are nonetheless desirable, but these things exist for other foreign languages because foreign language speakers have had the benefit of development at institutions of learning since at least the universities of the Middle Ages. The curriculum of any foreign language emerged when figures such as Dante and Boccaccio, for example, strengthened the need and desire for a curriculum in the medieval Italian university, at a time when someone might have well argued that Latin is all one needs to be a true intellectual. The rise of the very vernacular languages which a foreign language department hosts required a willingness to design, develop, and institute such disciplinary advantages. ASL is at the beginning of this process, and it would be an injustice, I think, to halt the process on the grounds that it is not yet the discipline it could be (to say little of what it already is, which is quite a lot). Many institutions, such as my own, have adopted ASL as an option, but more work needs to be done, institutionally and personally, in providing the language with the status it deserves. For these reasons, I believe that American Sign Language should be classified as a foreign language, on the basis of both sense-based cognitive theory and classic conceptions of the distinctiveness of one language’s fundamental operations (how it is used correctly as regards grammar, rhetoric, and logic). Therefore, I recommend that institutions which host ASL learning embrace it fully in the foreign languages community and curriculum.


Images from the report:


The memorandum to the SUNY Academic Officers from the SUNY Provost announcing the Student Mobility Steering Committee’s recommendation that the pro-“ASL as a foreign language” side be taken by the SUNY academic system, and that this recommendation would be duly implemented in SUNY programs.


Table of contents for the many appendices submitted by the committee, in which my opinion piece appears as the second item under Appendix E, “Language Theory.”


First page of my piece as it appears within the report.



The wonderful ECC professor who asked for my contribution gave me this penguin USB stick as a gift. Aww!

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