It is a common language, the acquisition of language, that informs a cultural sensibility. Hearing people often remark in reverent, near-mystical tones about how beautiful sign language is, and to some extent this may be attributed to the inherent movements of the language itself. But the power of its beauty derives from what it symbolizes. Its very existence is a testamennnt to people’s will to communicate. It pays tribute to our determination to make connections in the face of incredible odds. —Leah Hager Cohen, in “Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World”, page 275
I am not deaf or even hard-of-hearing, but I feel a great deal of affinity towards deaf and hard-of-hearing people. There are several reasons that I can name for this.
When I first came to the United States for college, I could understand class lectures just fine, but not random dinner conversations, because the vocabulary is broader and tends to jump around more outside of class. Even today, I tend to talk less when chatting with groups I don’t know very well. In other words, I had the experience of being cut off from information because of communication difficulties.
I have always been interested in languages, especially sign languages. I know a few signs in Taiwanese Sign Language, and have been increasingly actively trying to learn American Sign Language since 1996. Some grammatical constructs in ASL are similar to parts of Mandarin grammar, for example topicalization.
Being gay makes me a minority in the world, and being Taiwanese makes me a minority in the States. M.J. Bienvenu is quoted in DefiantlyDeaf as saying: “If you are deaf, you know almost exactly what it is like to be gay, and vice versa.” Obviously, I being hearing cannot make the comparison for myself, but at least it is another reason for me to be interested.
Finally, the first rally of the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet University took place on March 1, 1988, which is my tenth birthday. Coincidence or not? You decide.
Deaf Studies at Harvard University
Harvard University’s Deaf Studies and American Sign Language program is very weak, as in it doesn’t exist. There is no ASL or Deaf Studies class listed in the course catalog, and Harvard does not accept ASL for its undergraduate foreign language requirement.
Although PBH (Phillips Brooks House, the primary public service organization on campus) offers informal ASL classes through its Committee on Deaf Awareness (CODA), the classes do not count for credit and meet only one hour per week. Imagine trying to learn French by spending one hour per week.
Compared to nearby institutions such as Boston University and Northeastern University, the situation is pathetic. Still, if you are a Harvard student interested in the subject, I would be happy to get you started—just send email.
If you are trying to find American Sign Language interpreters for an event, meeting or class at Harvard, some people you should contact are:
- Kellie Stewart (617-496-3720, firstname.lastname@example.org) at the FAS Student Disability Resource Center.
- Marie Trottier (617-495-1859, email@example.com), the University-wide coordinator.
- Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (617-695-7500). They run the Massachusetts interpreter registry. They also have informational documents on sign languages and interpreters.
If you want to interact with deaf people, learn American Sign Language, or investigate Deaf culture, you should check out:
Books and resources on deaf culture
- Defiantly Deaf, an informative and entertaining introduction to deaf culture.
- Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries (ISBN 0674194241), an eloquent and moving book on deaf culture.
- Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World by Leah Hager Cohen (ISBN 0395636256) (also in paperback, ISBN 0679761659), another eloquent and moving book on deaf culture.
- A Journey into the Deaf-World by Harlan Lane (hearing), Robert Hoffmeister (hearing child of deaf parents), and Ben Bahan (deaf) (ISBN 0915035626) (also in paperback, ISBN 0915035634). A more recent, organized and informative overview of the deaf community and its lives.
- Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language by Nora Groce (ISBN 067427041X). A beautiful look at the past of Martha’s Vineyard, when the island had a high rate of hereditary deafness, everybody knew sign, and being deaf was not a disability.
- Everything You Wanted to Know About Deafness
- Deaf Resource Library
- Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
Learning American Sign Language
As with any other language, there is really no good way to learn American Sign Language without frequent contact with fluent, if not native, speakers, in either a classroom or a real-life setting. The intensive summer ASL classes at GallaudetUniversity is most famous, and is said to be pretty good. Your local deaf organization would have more information on ASL classes in your area. If you live in Massachusetts, check out Selecting a Sign Language Class.
Respectable textbooks used in ASL classes that tend to be less dependent on a classroom setting include
- Learning American Sign Language by Tom Humphries and Carol Padden (ISBN 0135285712).
- A Basic Course in American Sign Language by Tom Humphries, Carol Padden and Terrence J. O’Rourke (ISBN 0932666426).
- The American Sign Language Phrase Book by Lou Fant (ISBN 0809235005). While not comprehensive or adequate as a textbook by any means, this book shows signs used in context and includes a chapter on basic grammar.
The only ASL-to-English dictionary I know of is
- The American Sign Language Handshape Dictionary by Richard A. Tennant (ISBN 1563680432).
Unfortunately, the signs included in this dictionary are far from comprehensive, thus severely restricting its use.
Computer gesture recognition
- Bill Freeman and Matt Brand
- Alex Pentland and Thad Starner
- Mohammed Waleed Kadous: Bibliography on machine gesture and sign language recognition
(towards the end of the 20th century)