Communication Currents

Communication Currents

The ASL Classroom as a Site of Intercultural Communication

March 17, 2021
Intercultural Communication

American Sign Language (ASL) was once banned in classrooms for children who were deaf and hard-of-hearing. But, today, it is the third most popular language for high school and college students. This is one example of the hearing population’s growing interest in sign language. Today, the use and study of ASL is seen as not only a disability rights issue, but also “a linguistic, cultural, and community-based necessity.” In a new article in NCA’s Review of Communication, Heidi M. Rose examines how immersive ASL classrooms can act as sites of intercultural understanding. 

Rose writes that the Deaf community, people “whose primary language is ASL and who identif[y] as part of a culture defined primarily by language, not by disability or physiological condition,” are part of a linguistic minority in the United States. In contrast, people who cannot hear, were not raised with ASL, and may not consider themselves part of the community are referred to using the term “deaf” with a lower-case d.

The introduction to the article asks readers to imagine themselves as students in a university ASL classroom: 

You didn’t know you were hearing until you started taking this class. Sort of like you didn’t know you were white (if you’re white) until you were exposed to the experiences of people of color. Sort of like you didn’t name yourself as straight or cisgender (if you’re straight or cis) until you were exposed to LGBTQ+ experiences. Now, in this classroom, you realize you’re hearing, because you’re learning ASL, and your professor is Deaf and doesn’t speak English (well, she can, but she chooses not to, like your high school French teacher who taught only in French—it’s a better way to learn)… Your eyes hurt sometimes after class because this is a seeing and visual language. You’ve never been in a class where you didn’t have to pay attention by listening.

This passage draws attention to the feeling of being in an ASL classroom where most students share the ability to see. For many hearing students, this is the first time that they must rely on sight, without the aid of sound, to learn. Yet, Rose argues that there are surprising connections between the study of sound and ASL. Sound encompasses vibration and rhythm. In contrast to an oral language, ASL students experience rhythm through their bodies as they sign. 

In another passage, Rose describes how students experience the “quiet” of an ASL classroom: 

The quiet is at first intimidating. You’re nervous about drawing attention to yourself. Every movement seems bigger, more exaggerated, cutting through the air, the space. But your professor moves around so freely. You feel your body clunky, loud in its awkwardness. Better to stay small. You feel really uncoordinated at first.

Rose argues that as hearing students experience the quiet of the ASL classroom, they are also observing how their Deaf instructor and other Deaf people adapt to the hearing world. Customs that might go unnoticed in a non-ASL classroom, such as lining chairs up in rows, are suddenly brought to students’ attention. With chairs in rows, you cannot see other students sign. 

Rose also argues that ASL classrooms can bring attention to audism or discrimination against people who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing.

From the students’ perspective, Rose paints this picture: 

Your instructor demonstrates clearly the discrimination d/Deaf people face just for being d/Deaf, such as in the past hearing teachers slapping deaf children’s hands or making them sit on their hands so they wouldn’t sign, or now how some colleges don’t hire Deaf ASL instructors because it costs too much to provide accommodations or because it’s too hard to find Deaf instructors. 

As an observer in ASL classrooms, Rose has seen how immersive ASL classrooms spark students’ interest in the language and make them aware of audism. By immersing students in Deaf culture, the ASL classroom can be a site for transformation. Students both become aware of their bodily senses, and also observe and experience the world through a new perspective. 

Rose concludes that Communication Studies departments should consider how ASL can be approached from a Communication perspective. For example, classroom interactions such as the ones described in this article can be examined through the lens of critical intercultural communication pedagogy because these experiences not only expose students to some of the daily experiences of the Deaf community, but also upend structures that support audism. 

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Heidi M. Rose (2020): Sounding sight in an ASL classroom, Review of Communication, 20:4, 316-323, DOI: 10.1080/15358593.2020.1819554.

About the author (s)

Heidi M. Rose

Villanova University

Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication

Heidi M. Rose