The last point of the myths about American Sign Language is that there is no culture behind it.
So, what defines culture? There are different aspects of culture; whether it is biological, human, business practices and specialized focuses. The concept of culture has become broad and specific at the same time; however, let us focus on what this blog will specify.
Culture on a human front is how people value morals, taboos, socialization and is extended to include history, arts and literature and learned behavior.
This is what Merriam-Webster had to say about the human aspect of culture:
5 - a : the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations
b : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time <popular culture><southern culture>
c: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization <a corporate culture focused on the bottom line>
So, how are culture and deaf people tied in? Despite an overwhelming approximate 90% of hearing parents giving birth and raising deaf children, deaf culture and ASL can be transmitted over generations due to the 10% of deaf parents having/raising deaf children. In the process of the 90%/deaf children, they learn about the culture and language through enculturation, meaning the culture and language is taught to them through various means. The primary means of this enculturation is through the deaf schools, the next is where the parents allow themselves to become a part of the deaf culture so that their child will have the best (and worst) of both cultures.
Ok, so what is the point? How does ASL have a culture? Language and culture is explicitly tied together, one cannot survive without the other. Most often, when language fails to thrive, culture is quickly catching up to the death of an entire group of people. While language is a part of culture, what makes a culture a culture? Briefly mentioned is customs, traditions, values that a group share. Do deaf people have a culture?
Yes! Since deaf people are highly visual, the environment and socialization is suited for visual access meaning that light and tactile activity rates high on the list of cultural participation. We have shared experiences of a varying range, from language/cultural oppression to the linguistic freedom of poetry and prose. Do we have art and literature? Oh boy do we ever! Do we value the lighting system? Yep, we are in love with light, as a moth is attracted to a flame. Do we have values and taboos? Yep, one thing we value highly is the quality of education that deaf children get, which is why we continue to fight for them. Do we have a 'Deaf Standard Time'? Yep, remember not everyone does DST (I know I do....), we love long goodbyes.
In the olden days, deaf people would congregate in the kitchen because the kitchen of all rooms in the house has the best lighting. It still remains true today; however, either the dining room or living room with ample lighting are cool places to be. Literature is not limited to books, also incorporates video poetry, music and books. There is plenty out there to find. KISS-FIST, YouTube: Sean Forbes, SignMark, Rosa Lee (do a search for Clayton Valli), DeafLife, Chuck Baird, Warren Miller, De'VIA, Carmel Flores Photography, Siau Lioe and many more.
Deaf culture is also cross-cultural, one can find similar traditions and values in other countries, even if we do not share the same language, ASL. The visual-spatial characters of manual language is similar that can create similar cultural aspects shared across cultures.
Be careful when you thinks that there is no culture or ASL is a 'form of English' or that ASL does not originate from America (although it's structure is based in LSF), because we deaf people are out there. You just have to find us somehow and brave the barrier that divides the two cultures. Can you and will you?
To Be Whole
Currently I am an ASL teacher at a local college and at an high school. I received my Masters in Sign Language Education from Gallaudet University. At home, I am an activist within the community, Northwest Indiana. My son is in first grade and my daughter goes to E.C.L.I.P.S.E. ASL Preschool. Change begins with you and change is effective with a team.