ASL should fulfill both halves of foreign language requirement


Advocates in the renewed effort to bring American Sign Language (ASL) into the set of languages that are accepted by the School of Arts and Sciences toward the first half of its language requirement are justified in their request. The passage of a TCU Senate resolution last week in support of recognition should lead the Arts and Sciences faculty to reconsider this time around.

Calls for this recognition are by no means new – while ASL remains a small program, it has grown in popularity over the past few decades and ASL students for at least the past two years have advocated for its counting towards the first half of the Arts and Sciences language requirement. Even before then, in 2008, the School of Arts and Sciences faculty voted down a proposal from the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development to allow ASL to fulfill this part of the language requirement.

The fact that students of ASL at Tufts can’t explore the subject to the fullest and are often forced to look off the Hill for more opportunities to do so is understandably frustrating – the faculty’s denial that ASL should be allowed to count toward the language requirement in full even more so. The stated purpose of the language requirement, according to this year’s Academic Bulletin published by the university, is to “[provide] a basis for locating oneself within a larger cultural and international context.” Language courses, among other requirements, “constitute the foundation of a liberal arts education at Tufts.”

While less linguistically inclined Jumbos love to hate the policy, these are honorable goals, and they’re sufficiently fulfilled by ASL. The reason that liberal arts students at Tufts are required to become proficient in a language other than English, in short, is that it is assumed to benefit us in the long run to be able to communicate with a community or culture apart from the one we are accustomed to. ASL undeniably fills this purpose, as deaf culture and the ASL community in North America is complex and nuanced. ASL also provides the same challenges of learning a new syntax and vocabulary faced by learners of spoken languages like French or Japanese. 

Opposition claiming the “American” aspect of ASL invalidates it as a foreign language has no practical basis. ASL is a unique language with its own history and accompanying culture, so while it is not international it is still representative of a unique culture, making it no less qualified as a “foreign language” as the term is used to fulfill the School of Arts and Sciences’ goals in enforcing the requirement. The fact that ASL was developed in the U.S. and serves those who interact with English speakers does not make it equivalent to English. Rather, it has the properties of a unique language around which a specific and rich culture has evolved. Treating ASL as anything else, as its exclusion from Part I of the language requirement does, is a matter of disrespect that the faculty should amend should the issue come to another vote.

Sign language has practicality aside from academic purposes: the ability to sign helps doctors work with deaf patients and teachers to educate deaf students. It’s also one of the most heavily used languages in the U.S.

The Senate was right in supporting this latest push for recognition of ASL as a legitimate part of both halves of the language requirement. The Daily supports the passage of last week’s resolution and urges the Arts and Sciences Curricula Committee, as well as the faculty as a whole, to do the same.