The Use of American Sign Language in National Deaf Identity Construction

Broders and Identity Studies, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom, University of York, 8-9 January 2010
1 p.
The Deaf World encompasses deaf people around the globe who embrace an agenda unique to their cultural and linguistic minority (Lane, Hoffmeister, and Bahan 1996). Although a distinct global community, individual deaf communities are also impacted by their immediate social environments and exhibit unique characteristics that set them apart from each other. In other words, culturally deaf people typically identify both with their geographical location (often as a distinct national deaf entity) and cultural positioning (as a global deaf entity). Although there are hundreds of sign languages in the Deaf World, American Sign Language (ASL) currently has a powerful influence on language use in the international deaf community. It is intentionally taught in deaf schools around the world which are primary sites for the emergence of deaf communities, their cultural construction, and sign language development. Many international deaf leaders are attending Gallaudet University or other American educational institutions where they are learning ASL and then transmitting it to their home countries. In addition, ASL often serves as a lingua franca in cross-national deaf interaction. Despite this spread, attitudes toward ASL vary widely. While some embrace it as a tool toward upward social mobility, others believe that it is threatening their indigenous sign languages and leading to language loss and endangerment, perceiving ASL as a “killer language”. During the last three years, I have studied the ethnolinguistic situation of deaf communities in countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean that have had significant amounts of contact with ASL. This research has included fieldwork in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Grenada, Jamaica, Peru, Trinidad, and St. Vincent. Attitudes toward the use of ASL and those who use ASL were investigated through extensive participant observation, interviews, and questionnaires. The evidence consistently indicates that deaf people include perceptions of linguistic divergence or alignment with ASL as an important factor in constructing their own identity. For example, deaf people in one community indicate that they are the core of their national deaf community because of the perception, which may not be linguistically accurate, that a neighboring community uses ASL. This is an emerging issue to consider when investigating deaf social networks and community boundaries within the Deaf World.
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Dominican Republic
Trinidad and Tobago
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
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sign language
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