American Sign Language – should it be classed as a ‘foreign’ language?

I read a very interesting article today about American Sign Language in the Chicago Tribune about the status of the language at Northern Illinois University, where it has recently been classified as an official foreign language – but to some controversy.

Distinct as it is from any spoken language, ASL is still considered an indigenous language to the USA, and therefore cannot be ‘foreign’. But since the language is so far removed from English – not only in terms of the non-verbal way it is expressed, but also in its structure and syntax – from a purely linguistic point of view, many argue that it deserves to be defined as such.

Another argument against ASL’s foreign language status is that a language should have its own body of literature, though unless videos would be included under this term, this is clearly impossible for a language that depends entirely on visual stimuli to comprehend. However, there are many languages around the world (many in Africa) where languages and dialects thereof have no written component, yet would still be considered foreign.

Sign language is born out of necessity – how else could those unable to hear communicate with others but through visual means?

An example of the difference between the way American English and ASL works is given in the Tribune’s article:


This translates to “”It seems I have a toothache – I need to go to the dentist”. Grammatically and syntactically, it seems that the languages are worlds apart, yet there are only some 150 institutions across the states that accept ASL as a foreign language.