FAQ about American Sign Language

What is American Sign Language?
Is American Sign Language a real language or "simple English on the hands"?
What is the difference between "sign language" and American Sign Language?
How can I register for American Sign Language I?
How can I register for ASL II in the summer, then ASL III in the fall?
I didn't take ASL I at the UI, but I have taken classes in ASL before. How can I test into ASL II, III, or IV?
I am a correspondence student with a fluency in ASL. How can I test out of ASL IV and satisfy the GE World Languages requirement?
Can I major or minor in ASL, Deaf Studies, or Deaf Education?
What are some books you would recommend to help me learn more about ASL and Deaf culture?
Why is American Sign Language taught entirely in ASL? And why is there no voicing allowed in ASL classrooms?


Q: What is American Sign Language?

A:  American Sign Language is a visual-gestural language created by Deaf people and used by approximately 250,000 – 500,000 Americans (and some Canadians) of all ages.

What is meant by “visual?”  Since American Sign Language uses body movements instead of sound, “listeners” (or “receivers”) use their eyes instead of their ears to understand what is being said.  And because all linguistic information must be received through the eyes, the language is carefully structured to fit the needs and capabilities of the eyes.

What is meant by “gestural?”  “Gestures” can be defined as any movements of the body that occur for the purpose of communication.  The gestures found in ASL are a special set of rule-governed behaviors, which are called signs.*

*Adapted from American Sign Language: A Teacher’s Resource Text on Grammar and Culture, by Charlotte Baker-Shenk and Dennis Cokely.
 

Q: Is American Sign Language a real language or "simple English on the hands"?

A: American Sign Language is a distinct, natural language with rules of grammar and usage as different from English as any foreign language. Consequently, a course in ASL is comparable to, and no less difficult or rigorous than, other language courses. Many students assume that taking ASL will be an easy way to fulfill the GE: Foreign Language requirement, but learning a new language is always a challenge. In addition, American Sign Language is a visual-gestural language, not a spoken language. Some students find that it increases the challenge to be learning a language in a new mode. Check out our No Voice in the Classroom policy.
 

Q: What is the difference between “sign language” and American Sign Language?

A: There is not one sign language for all countries any more than there is one spoken language for all countries, consequently the term sign language is a generic term that refers to all signed languages, while American Sign Language is a specific term that refers to the visual-gestural language created by Deaf people that is used in the United States and parts of Canada.

For example, if a student approached you and said, “I am taking a spoken language at The University of Iowa and I really enjoy it!”  Your first question would be “Which one?”  The same question should be asked of someone who tells you they are taking “sign language.”

Signed languages have other similarities with spoken languages.  Some sign languages are in the same language family, such as American Sign Language, French Sign Language, and Spanish Sign Language, and have some signs in common.  Other sign languages are completely different; for example British Sign Language is completely different from American Sign Language.  In addition, every different sign language reflects the history, culture, and social mores of the community of Deaf people who use it and the country they live in.*

Recently, a student approached us and asked if we had any information on LSM (Lenguaje de Signos Mexicano or Mexican Sign Language) which is used in Mexico.  If you are interested, check out the following website: http://www-01.sil.org/mexico/lenguajes-de-signos/00i-signed-languages.htm

*Adapted in part from For Hearing People Only, edited by Matthew S. Moore and Linda Levitan.
 

Q: How can I register for American Sign Language I?

A: FALL AND SPRING SEMESTERS: American Sign Language is an extremely popular class that fills up quickly. Registration is on a first-come, first-served basis during the early registration period.  A few seats are held and distributed on a special permission basis to only those students who are in the following categories:

  • Students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing
  • Students who live with family members or other members of their immediate household who are deaf and use American Sign Language to communicate.  This includes the student’s local or permanent residence.
  • Students who are declared Speech and Hearing majors and appear on the department’s list of accepted students.

If you are a student in one of the above categories, send an e-mail request to asl-program@uiowa.edu. SENDING AN E-MAIL MESSAGE TO THIS ADDRESS WILL NOT ADD YOUR NAME TO A WAITING LIST OR REGISTER YOU FOR THE COURSE.

SUMMER SESSION: American Sign Language I and II intensive courses are occasionally offered during the summer. Registration for ASL I is on a first-come, first-served basis. Some of the seats are held for students in the special permission categories listed above.

 

Q: How can I register for ASL I in the summer, then ASL II in the fall?

A:  The prerequisite for ASL II is completion of ASL I.  Students who register and attend ASL I classes during the summer will be given the special permission code for ASL II Summer Session during the last week of class. The same is true for ASL III in the fall; the special permission code  will be given to students during the last week of ASL II Summer Session.
 

Q: I didn't take ASL I at The University of Iowa, but I have taken classes in ASL before. How can I test into ASL II, III, or IV?

A: We now offer placement testing for all students who have not taken ASL at The University of Iowa. Contact the program at: asl-program@uiowa.edu to schedule an appointment for a placement exam. Placement tests take approximately 45 minutes and include both receptive and expressive portions.

Students seeking placement testing should contact Robert Vizzini by writing to asl-program@uiowa.edu for more information.
 

Q: I am a student with a fluency in ASL. How can I test out of ASL IV and satisfy the GE World Languages requirement?

A: We have a testing coordinator who can administer a placement exam to determine whether a student has the fluency in American Sign Language and cultural knowledge of the American Deaf Community necessary to start ASL at a particular level or to satisfy the GE World Languages requirement. (See above for contact information.)
 

Q: Can I major or minor in ASL, Deaf Studies, or Deaf Education?

A: Our program offers a minor in ASL. We do not yet offer a major. Contact the advisor, Robert Vizzini at asl-program@uiowa.edu for more information.
 

Q: What are some books you would recommend to help me learn more about American Sign Language and Deaf culture?

A: We recommend any of the following books. This is only a partial list of the informative books that have been written on American Sign Language and Deaf culture.

Introduction to American Deaf Culture, by Thomas K. Holcomb

Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture, by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries

For Hearing People Only, by Matthew S. Moore and Linda Levitan

Seeing Voices, by Oliver Sacks

Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language, by Douglas C. Baynton

Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking, by H-Dirksen L. Bauman, ed.

Deaf World: A Historical Reader and Primary Sourcebook, by Lois Bragg, ed.

The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community, by Harlan Lane
 

Q: Why is American Sign Language taught entirely in ASL? And why is there no voicing allowed in American Sign Language classrooms?

The ASL program has a stringent No Voice in the Classroom policy. From the moment you enter the classroom, all conversation should be in ASL. From the first day, your classroom is a speech-free zone, before and after as well as during class.

Reasons for the policy:
1. You will learn ASL more quickly and effectively. Good language learning requires active learning. You will find that struggling to put all of your thoughts into ASL for these fifty minutes a day (at least!) will have a marked effect on your communicative fluency.

2. In addition to learning the language of the Deaf community, you are also learning Deaf culture. This is an issue of respect for both the language and the culture of the Deaf community.

3. Speaking in class may leave you open to suspicion of cheating. Even if you are not attempting to cheat, your professors cannot always tell the difference between an innocent comment whispered to a classmate and cheating. We may have to assume it is the latter and act accordingly.

4. It distracts and annoys other students in the class. Concentrating on putting yourself in a visual-only mode will make it easier for you to process the tremendous amount of visual information that you will encounter in ASL classes. Every time you talk, it makes it harder for other students to maintain this visual concentration.

Remember that when you enter an ASL class, leave your voice at the door. (It is really not as scary as it sounds!)