Why Should Deaf People Teach ASL?

This post was originally published on February 26, 2018 under a different site.

Discourses of native speakerism have been pervasive in the teaching of English as a second, additional, or foreign language. As Bonny Norton[1] has noted, these issues are tied to power and identity, and the perception that white speakers from what Kachru called “inner circle” countries possess a superior variety of English, which renders native speakers uniquely qualified to teach English. This perception of language ownership devalues the identities and teaching abilities of nonwhite English speakers, particularly those who have firsthand experience of learning English as a second or additional language. As Flores and Rosa argue, people of colour who are classified as English learners “can be understood to inhabit a shared racial posi­tioning that frames their linguistic practices as deficient.”[2] In other words, native speakerism in English language teaching is a proxy for racism.

In the field of ASL teaching in Canada and the USA, arguments against native speakerism in teaching ESL/EAL/EFL have been appropriated by white, hearing, able-bodied, native English-speaking people who defend their right to teach ASL and accuse of “discrimination” any deaf people or deaf advocacy organizations that may protest. In the way of white people, they smell a profit. Universities employ hearing instructors of ASL because deaf bodies are fewer in number; deaf people face barriers to language and communication from the cradle and are thus seen as inherently less qualified and intelligent than hearing people; deaf bodies are unruly and difficult to accommodate and communicate with. The latter is a main reason why quality ASL teaching by deaf instructors is important if you take the position, as I do, that learning ASL may imply a goal of eventually learning how to communicate with deaf people in some fashion.

One may also point out that hearing able-bodiedness is not a protected class in any human rights or anti-discrimination legislation, and it is ludicrous for individuals in positions of hegemonic power to accuse of discrimination an oppressed minority that daily faces social and epistemological violence. This is akin to accusations of “reverse racism” made by the alt-right against advocates for persons of colour. Indeed, hearing ASL teachers and their advocates seem disturbingly unaware of the historical and present-day social positioning of deaf people.

Teaching ASL is not the same thing as teaching English. For one thing, acquiring proficiency in a minority language is always more difficult than acquiring proficiency in a majority language. What it means to be a “native ASL speaker” is diametrically different from what it means to be a native English speaker. One wonders if the same individuals who accuse deaf people and advocacy organizations of “discrimination” would do the same to Indigenous language activists, if the former somehow figured out a way to make money from the teaching of Indigenous languages and if Indigenous speakers protested this cultural exploitation.

As a linguist colleague of mine has noted, ASL classes at postsecondary institutions in Canada and the USA are a big draw for students needing a modern language credit to graduate. Learning ASL is perceived as easier than learning other modern (spoken) languages, especially if there is no curriculum or rigorous assessment in place, and if deaf instructors do not have formal academic credentials. The devaluing of ASL means universities do not care about the quality of the classes they provide, the ASL proficiency of instructors they employ, or the ultimate impact this has on the deaf community, which has the most to lose and least to gain from the wholesale appropriation of ASL.

[1] Norton, B. (1997). Language, identity, and the ownership of English. TESOL Quarterly, 31(3), 409-429.

[2] Flores, N. & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing appropriateness: Raciolinguistic ideologies and language diversity in education. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 149-171.