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2. American Sign Language Dictionary Development - Nifty 50

N-S-F in sign language

For more than half of the 20th century, sign language was regarded by experts and the general public alike as some sort of inferior gestural system, more of a handicap than a help to the deaf who used it.

In the 1960s, a young English professor at Gallaudet College, William Stokoe, who had studied linguistics, began to look at American Sign Language (ASL) as a linguist and discovered that it was full of regularities and structure, very much like a spoken language.

He applied for and received an NSF grant to study it further, a grant for which the NSF was publicly excoriated by the reigning establishment in deaf education (primarily descendants and intellectual heirs of Alexander Graham Bell, who favored an "oralist" approach that included preventing deaf students from using sign language).

A new language

With the grant, Stokoe published the Dictionary of American Sign Language. The ASL dictionary attracted the attention and interest of a number of other linguists and psycholinguists who embarked on extensive additional studies of ASL, mostly with NSF support. This work quickly led to a new understanding that ASL is in fact a full-blown language, with all of the fundamental formal properties of a spoken language.

Besides opening up a whole new dimension in linguistic study, which is still being pursued vigorously, this finding revolutionized deaf education in the U.S.

People finally figured out that deaf children who had an opportunity to learn and use sign language in the crucial early years of life did much better in developing the full, normal range of cognitive skills than children who did not. Few oralist deaf schools remain.

Original publication date: April 2000

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