American Sign Language and the "foreign language requirement" in Boston University's College of Arts and Sciences (CAS)

Undergraduates in the Boston University College of Arts and Sciences now can fulfill their foreign language requirement by studying ASL, and ASL is now also eligible to fulfill foreign language requirements for graduate students enrolled in MA and PhD programs in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Statements of support

Linguistic Society of American policy statement

The long history of this issue at BU

** Developments in 2004-2005: Change in Policy **

A proposal was submitted to the CAS Academic Policy Committee on Tuesday, April 13, 2004, asking that the APC recommend that "American Sign Language (ASL) proficiency be accepted in fulfillment of the CAS Foreign Language Requirement."

ASL courses (offered through the Boston University School of Education) are currently available to be taken by CAS undergraduates for elective credit toward graduation, although successful completion of the 4th semester course in ASL does not satisfy the foreign language requirement for CAS students (unlike completion of the 4th level course in any other foreign language taught at Boston University).

Subsequent developments:

Changes that were (and were not) recommended by the APC

 Official statement from the Linguistic Society of America ratified by mail ballot in 2001
       drafted by David Perlmutter, 2000 President, Linguistic Society of America
       (Professor of linguistics at the University of California, San Diego)

 Letter from Ray Jackendoff, 2003 President, Linguistic Society of America
(Professor and Chair, Program in Linguistics, Brandeis University and Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences)

 Statement from Walt Wolfram, 2001 President, Linguistic Society of America
William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at NC State University) [added 4/29/04]

 Statement from Joan Bresnan, 1999 President, Linguistic Society of America
       (Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of Humanities and Professor of Linguistics, Stanford University) [added 4/29/04]

Letter from Eve Sweetser, Professor of Linguistics and Director of the Cognitive Science Program at UC-Berkeley: on Berkeley's decision to accept ASL as a language that introduces students to a culture and literature distinct from those of English.
[4/25/04] new addition: Copy of the committee's report (thanks to Berkeley for allowing us to share this!). Also included is their discussion of the ASL curriculum at Vista College, where Berkeley students can study ASL (since Berkeley, unlike BU, does not offer its own ASL courses); the ASL curriculum at BU is explicitly compared to that of Vista in that document.

Letter from Laurence R. Horn, Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Linguistics, and Stephen R. Anderson, Professor of Linguistics (Chair), Psychology and Cognitive Science, at Yale University: on acceptance of ASL in satisfaction of the foreign language requirement there (for the last 20 years or so), despite the fact that ASL courses have not been offered at Yale until now, and on a current proposal to incorporate a two year sequence of courses in American Sign Language within the Yale curriculum.

An online petition drive in support of accepting ASL in satisfaction of university foreign language requirements was launched by a Boston University undergraduate last year. The petition was originally intended only for BU affiliates, but in fact, people from all over have signed.

See a partial list of those who signed the petition:

      -  Faculty members and researchers from other institutions

      -  BU faculty and staff members and BU students, alumni, and parents   

Thanks to everyone who has sent public and private expressions of support.

Letter from Frank Bechter, doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, addressed to President Aram Chobanian and Dean Jeffrey Henderson.

Statements of support from:

Heidi Reed, Commissioner, Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
Jane Simpson, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, University of Sydney, Australia
Dan Parvaz, PhD Student, Dept. of Linguistics, University of New Mexico, and Computational Linguist
Dave Squires, Science Teacher from Canada
Janet Randall, Director of the Linguistics Program, Northeastern University, Boston
Donna Jo Napoli , Professor of Linguistics, Swarthmore
Jane Grimshaw, Professor, Linguistics and Cognitive Science, Rutgers University
Rachel Mayberry, Associate Professor, School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill University
Ana Teresa Pérez-Leroux, Associate Professor of Spanish and Linguistics, University of Toronto
Sharon M. Klein, Professor, Department of English, California State University Northridge

Deaf perspectives: We welcome comments from Deaf students at BU and at other universities.

A few brief quotations about signed languages [added 5/2/04], from scholars including:

Coverage of the events
of 4/14

Dr. Dennis Cokely, Chairman of Northeastern University's Department of Modern Languages attended the rally. He called BU's policy regarding ASL "archaic and closed-minded with respect to the language used by the Deaf community."

[4/22/04] Addition to this site: Information about ASL as a foreign language at some other universities

The issue of whether American Sign Language (ASL) ought to satisfy the CAS Foreign Language Requirement has recently been raised by students at Boston University - and not for the first time.

The status of ASL as a language, with its own literature and culture, is well-documented by scientific evidence. Courses in ASL -- including language, linguistics, literature, and culture -- are offered at Boston University through the School of Education and can be taken for elective credit by students in the College of Arts and Sciences. Although ASL is *not* accepted by the College of Arts and Sciences in fulfillment of its "foreign language requirement," ASL is accepted for the CAS Linguistics major, which requires knowledge of two foreign languages, one of which may be ASL. It has also been accepted in fulfillment of the foreign language requirement for students in the University Professors program and in the School of Theology.

The issue of what is meant by a "foreign" language is apparently the basis for the refusal of CAS to accept ASL in satisfaction of this requirement, although no such argument would extend to exclusion of signed languages used outside of North America, which also are not accepted. Moreover, the administration has already acknowledged that other languages, such as Navajo, used solely within the US, would be deemed "foreign."

This site is dedicated to providing links to information about American Sign Language, and signed languages in general. Even otherwise well-educated people in this country often know little or nothing about signed languages and, therefore, do not realize that signed languages are full-fledged languages, comparable in structure, complexity, and expressiveness to all other natural languages. Another popular misconception is that ASL is simply 'English on the hands.' This is also completely untrue. ASL and English are, without a shadow of a doubt, distinct languages. It is true, however, that, as in all cases of language contact, there have been some influences of English on ASL (just as English itself has some borrowings from German and French, which are distinct languages from English).

This site also provides information about the history of the discussion of this issue at Boston University. There is no point in repeating this history. Perhaps we can learn from it and move forward?

Web Counter
hits since 4/6/04   [exactly 10 years since the APC rejected the last proposal about ASL]
   Farberware Cookware

Official position of the Linguistic Society of America  [added 4/16/04]
Statement drafted by Prof. David Perlmutter, UCSD; adopted by LSA membership in a mail ballot  7/1/01

Sign Languages

The Linguistic Society of America affirms that sign languages used by deaf communities are full-fledged languages with all the structural characteristics and range of expression of spoken languages. They have rule-governed systems of articulation, word formation, sentence structure, and meaning, which have been the subject of modern scholarly study since the pioneering work of William Stokoe (1919-2000) over forty years ago. These languages are not merely a set of informal gestures, nor are they a signed version of any particular spoken language. American Sign Language, the language of deaf communities in the United States and most of Canada, goes back almost two hundred years and is historically and structurally unrelated to spoken English. It is also the vehicle of a distinguished deaf culture and has a tradition of visual literature.

The LSA affirms for signed languages such as ASL all the rights and privileges attendant to any spoken languages, including the right to satisfy a student's academic foreign language requirement, just as Spanish, Chinese, Navajo, or any other spoken language can.

Information about ASL as a language

Current efforts to achieve recognition of ASL as a "foreign" language for purposes of the CAS foreign language requirement at BU

History of efforts at Boston University to have ASL recognized as a "foreign" language for purposes of the College foreign language requirement
Does this policy reflect discrimination against languages in the visual modality and against those for whom signed languages are primary languages?
         - Related story: Somnolent Samantha

Distinguished alumni of Boston University with expertise about this issue

Media coverage of ASL at Boston University

Another perspective: a 1998 article from the Chronicle of Higher Education: "The Linguistic Turf Battles Over American Sign Language" by Lennard J. Davis
            see also:

    • "A Professor Champions Distinct Culture of Deaf People" by Ellen K. Coughlin, Chronicle of Higher Education, from the issue dated October 2, 1991 [link expires 6/1/04]
    • " American Students Flocking to Foreign-Language Courses" by Eric Hoover, Chronicle of Higher Education, from the issue dated November 21, 2003 [link expires 6/1/04] According to a survey on foreign languages conducted by the Modern Language Association that appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages Bulletin:

      "In 2002, more than 60,000 students registered for American Sign Language, a 432-percent increase from 1998. While some of that increase results from a change in the survey's data-gathering, the association reports that 186 colleges and universities have started American Sign Language programs since 1998."

    See also: "Foreign Language Enrollments in United States Institutes of Higher Education, Fall 2002," by Elizabeth B. Welles (Director of Foreign Language Programs and ADFL at the Modern Language Association). ADFL (Association of Departments of Foreign Languages) Bulletin, Winter 2004.

    [added 4/21/04] "In Gesture Toward Change, Schools Sign On to 'Signing'" by Kristen Conover, The Christian Science Monitor, 12/8/97.

    Some in academia, however, question whether it is appropriate to consider ASL a foreign language or a second language. After all, it's indigenous to the United States and most people who communicate through ASL read and write in English.

    "The controversy comes from people who don't understand the nature of sign language," says Susan Gass, co-director of the Center for Language Education and Research at Michigan State University. "Probably, you won't find any controversy among linguists."

    Boston University is well-known for its programs in deaf studies, but the university doesn't recognize ASL for fulfillment of the foreign-language requirement. "The issue is one that has been a long and still ongoing battle," says Robert Hoffmeister, director of Programs in Deaf Studies. "It has only been recognized as a 'language' recently by the university administration."

[added 4/21/04]   ASL at some other universities

Events of interest


Information about ASL as a language

The status of ASL and signed languages

  • General information resources

  • ASL as a "foreign language"
    • Legislation (as of 2003) and
    • States that recognize ASL as a foreign language as of 1996, including Massachusetts:
      Mass. General Laws (MGL), Chapter 15A, Sect. 9A: added by the State during 1993 Regular Session and approved on January 14, 1994.
      • 9A: ASL is recognized as a full and legitimate language, as the language of a unique culture in the United States, and as the equivalent of a spoken language for the purposes of foreign language study and course credit in colleges.
    • List (although not completely up to date) of universities accepting ASL in fulfillment of foreign language requirements (includes Stanford, Yale, Brown, MIT, Purdue, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, University of Texas, University of Virginia, University of Washington, University of Pennsylvania, University of New Mexico, University of California, University of Arizona, University of Colorado, University of Kansas, University of Massachusetts, Indiana, Ohio State, among many others). BU is somewhat unusual in offering a program in ASL and Deaf Studies -- and it is an excellent one at that (and even more unusual in offering ASL classes that do not count for the foreign language requirement). These offerings should present a competitive advantage for Boston University, as the demand for ASL classes is growing nationally (see, e.g., this article about a recent survey of demand for foreign language classes conducted by the Modern Language Association).

Research on ASL carried out at Boston University - with substantial support from the National Science Foundation

See also The Center for the Study of Communication and the Deaf in the School of Education.

[back to the top]

Earlier efforts to achieve recognition of ASL as a "foreign" language for purposes of the CAS foreign language requirement at BU

ASL was the only natural language taught at Boston University that did not count in fulfillment of the CAS foreign language requirement, which states:

"Degree candidates are required to demonstrate proficiency at the advanced level in one language other than their own."

[added 4/13/04]    Proposal to the CAS APC

On April 13, 2004, Prof. Carol Neidle submitted a proposal for consideration by the Academic Policy Committee of the College of Arts and Sciences, requesting that the APC recommend that proficiency in American Sign Language (ASL) be accepted in fulfillment of the CAS Foreign Language Requirement, which states: "Degree candidates are required to demonstrate advanced proficiency in one language other than their own." (Professor Neidle is a Professor of French and Linguistics in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures and Director of the American Sign Language Linguistic Research Project.)

The body of the proposal is available here: aslprop.pdf

The committee was also given supplementary materials, including the following letters from faculty members at Boston University in support of the proposal:

  • A letter by David Wagenknecht, Professor of English, about ASL literature.
    [This is the same letter he wrote for the same purpose a decade ago, resubmitted with his permission; his views on the subject have not changed.]
  • A letter by Prof. Robert Hoffmeister, Director of the Deaf Studies and ASL programs here, including information about the courses currently available to CAS students and the ability of his staff to evaluate the proficiency of those who may have learned ASL in some way other than taking courses here at BU.
  • A letter of endorsement signed by the Chairman and members of the Executive Committee of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures.
  • A letter of endorsement on behalf of the faculty in the interdisciplinary graduate programs in Applied Linguistics, signed by the program Director.

The materials listed above were provided in pdf format as a 94-page document-- with links from the proposal text to all supplementary materials -- for the benefit of members of the CAS Academic Policy Committee.

Prof. Neidle and Prof. Harlan Lane (University Distinguished Professor at Northeastern University) have offered to appear before the committee to answer any questions that the committee may have. Copies of their cv's were included with the proposal. The proposal also included the URL for this page.

An e-mail addendum was sent to the Dean's Office and to the Chair of the APC on April 16, to be forwarded to committee members: a copy of the resolution on sign language passed by the Linguistic Society of America. A second addendum was sent via e-mail on April 20, including a copy of the messages from Prof. Sweetser at UC-Berkeley and from Profs. Horn and Anderson at Yale. On April 21, a copy of the UC-Berkeley report that resulted from their investigation of this same issue was provided for consideration by the members of the APC at BU.
[updated 4/29/04] These supplementary materials were presented to the Committee members at the meeting on April 28, 2004 at which this proposal was discussed. Word from the Dean's Office is that discussion of this proposal will continue when the APC meets again in September.

Note for committee members: A new version of the pdf document, modified to include the addenda just mentioned, has been posted at the same URL as the previous version, as of about 5 PM on Saturday, 4/24/04. Additional documentation received after that date will be accessible from this Web site as it becomes available.

As we understand the situation (corrections are invited):

    The Academic Policy Committee consists of 9 faculty members plus 4 deans (3 of the Deans are full voting members of the committee; it is not clear why there is a 4th dean participating, seemingly diverging from what is specified in the relatively new CAS Bylaws). Thus, the Deans cast 3 of the 12 votes.

In addition, although the faculty members who sit on this committee have been elected by CAS faculty, the results of these elections (and therefore membership on this committee) are not disclosed to faculty members in the College.

     According to the bylaws of the College of Arts and Sciences, this committee is also supposed to include two undergraduate and two graduate students. It is not known whether students do, in fact, serve on this committee.

Letters to the editor of the Daily Free Press

  • Letter by Rowan Armor - in favor of ASL counting in satisfaction of the CAS foreign language requirement.
  • Letter by Nathaniel Pagan - claims that "ASL is a wholly effective attempt to recreate American English with the hands."
  • Response by Rowan Armor (not published by the Daily Free Press)
  • Letter by Kirk VanGilder, a Deaf student in the Ph.D. program in the School of Theology who has used ASL to satisfy the foreign language requirement for his degree (not published by the Daily Free Press)
    [added 4/9/04; sent to the Daily Free Press some time ago]
  • Letter by Sinead Clements - in opposition to the foreign language requirement itself.
  • Letter by Maelyn Entwistle - the problem is widespread ignorance about ASL.
  • Letter by Elizabeth Taylor - "CAS must accept ASL for credit"
  • Letter by Becky Reuker - "ASL classes worthy of [foreign] language credit"
  • Letter by Deborah Perry - "The current discriminatory policy must be changed." (abridged version published by the Daily Free Press)
  • Letter from Becky Williams - "'Deaf' should be capitalized"
  • Letter from Dean Henderson - "CAS dean has considered ASL"
    "At issue is not the status of ASL as a distinct language with an associated history, literature and cultural role..." But "ASL does not qualify as a foreign language since it is almost exclusively used by inhabitants of North America who cross the whole spectrum of North American culture, and it has not (or not yet) generated a corpus of literature with the breadth and general circulation beyond its own users that would put it on a par with the languages traditionally adopted for a humanities requirement."
  • Reply to Dean Henderson by Kirk VanGilder (not published)
    [added 4/9/04]
  • Reply to Dean Henderson by Lennard J. Davis (not published)
    [added 4/9/04]

[We will post copies of letters submitted to the DFP,, whether or not they are published there.]

See also discussion from 1991-94.

Of historical interest: In response to the 1991 article that appeared in Boston University Today quoting the BU Associate Dean's characterization of ASL, there was a posting to the Linguist List listserv by M. Sokolik from the University of Texas. That elicited this response to the Linguist list from the person who was (then and for many, many years, starting in 1975 -- see the testimonial to his contributions to the field) the Program Officer of the Linguistics Division of the National Science Foundation, Dr. Paul Chapin. He himself had published on the subject of academic acceptance of ASL in satisfaction of foreign language requirements and "American Sign Language and the Liberal Education." [added 4/18/04]

Other endorsements from within Boston University

Candidates for student government offices [updated 4/23/04]

One slate of candidates for the recent student elections had included the issue of recognition of ASL for full foreign language credit in their campaign platform:

  • Rowan Armor (candidate for President) [see Daily Free Press article]
  • Dave Rini (candidate for Vice President)
  • Marc Weber (candidate for Treasurer) - ELECTED

Another candidate had also endorsed this proposal:

  • Matt Bennett (candidate for Secretary) - ELECTED       

Other statements of interest, concern, and support

[send contributions]

[added 4/22/04]

Letter from Ray Jackendoff, Chair of the Program in Linguistics at Brandeis University, 2003 President of the Linguistic Society of America, and Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

President Aram Chobanian
President’s Office
Boston University
One Sherborn Street
Boston MA 02215

Dean Jeffrey Henderson
CAS Administration
725 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston MA 02215

Dear President Chobanian and Dean Henderson:

        I am writing in support of the effort currently underway at Boston University for recognition of American Sign Language as satisfying the foreign language degree requirement.  I find it somewhat ironic to learn that BU does not accord ASL such recognition, given the superb instruction in the language and the rich culture of ASL speakers at BU.  My own university, Brandeis, has for some years recognized ASL as satisfying our foreign language requirement; but I was surprised to learn recently that students here who want to learn ASL overwhelmingly study it at Boston University. 

        I am in no position to assess the reasons why BU has in the past chosen not to recognize ASL as a foreign language.  I do know in general that there exist prejudices against it, stemming from ignorance about the language.  Yet, as has been demonstrated in ever greater detail over the last forty years, signed languages like ASL are languages as rich and complex as any spoken language.  They are in no way “primitive”, nor are they derivative of spoken language.  They are superb vehicles for poetry and drama. The acquisition of signed languages by deaf children parallels the acquisition of spoken languages by hearing children; there are many parallels in the loss of signed and spoken languages due to brain injury.  When I was writing my introductory linguistics text Patterns in the Mind, I considered ASL such a significant source of evidence about the nature of human language that I devoted a whole chapter to it, as well as several sections of other chapters. 

        I hope these remarks may be in some way helpful in your arriving at a decision.  Please feel free to contact me if you wish to discuss these matters further.

                                                Sincerely yours,

                                                Ray Jackendoff
                                                Chair, Program in Linguistics
                                                2003 President, Linguistic Society of America
                                                Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
cc: Prof. Carol Neidle

[added 4/29/04]

Statement from Walt Wolfram, 2001 President, Linguistic Society of America (and William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of Linguistics at NC State University)

The linguistic legitimacy and integrity of ASL as a language is a given. Furthermore, it is one of the most important languages used in the United States. To deny its native users and those who wish to learn it as a second language the rights attendant to its status as a language is one of the most blatant forms of linguistic discrimination still tolerated in American society. Such personal and institutional acts of discrimination must cease and those who discriminate against ASL must be held accountable.

Walt Wolfram

[added 4/29/04]

Statement from Joan Bresnan, 1999 President, Linguistic Society of America

Dear Carol,

I would like to add my voice in support of your efforts to have ASL
recognized as a language satisfying the foreign language requirement
at the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University. Stanford
University accepts ASL for this purpose, as you know.

Thank you for working to advance the public understanding of the
nature of language and in particular for your outstanding work on ASL.

Best wishes,

Joan Bresnan
Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of Humanities
and Professor of Linguistics, Stanford University

[added 4/20/04]

Letter from Laurence R. Horn, Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Linguistics, and Stephen R. Anderson, Professor of Linguistics (Chair), Psychology and Cognitive Science, at Yale University

Dear Carol,

In connection with the issue of accepting ASL for satisfying the foreign language requirement at Boston University, we thought it might be useful to review our experience here at Yale.

Almost twenty years ago, a proposal was made to allow competency in ASL to count as satisfying the Yale College foreign language requirement.  A cross-disciplinary committee was appointed, with a chair from Religious Studies and one linguist.  Although, as later reported at a Yale College faculty meeting, the initial inclination on the part of most of the committee members (before studying the question) was negative, the more they investigated, the more they realized that those initial dispositions were unjustified.

One of us (Horn) attended, and indeed spoke at, the faculty meeting at which the committee reported favorably on the proposal, and at which it was adopted by an overwhelming vote.  The Yale College foreign language requirement on undergraduates is currently stated as follows:

   A student is required to demonstrate competence at the intermediate  level in a foreign language either upon entrance or before graduation, preferably by the end of the junior year. This requirement may be met  by presenting an appropriate Advanced Placement test score, or by passing an examination at Yale, or by passing intermediate courses in a foreign language at Yale. Languages currently offered at Yale in which a student may attain the required competence are: Arabic, Chinese, Czech, ancient Egyptian, French, German, classical Greek, modern Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Kiswahili, Korean, Latin, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Serbian and Croatian, Spanish, Turkish, Vietnamese, Yoruba, and Zulu. Information about appropriate Advanced Placement test scores, relevant courses, and the nature of the examinations in these languages is contained in chapter IV in the introductory statements of the departments offering courses in foreign languages.

   Students who possess competence in a language other than those listed here (including American Sign Language), either because it is their native language, or because they learned it abroad or by study at another university, or by some other means, should consult the appropriate director of undergraduate studies or the director of theCenter for Language Study to arrange for an examination.

Note that ASL, along with other languages not offered as part of the Yale curriculum, can be offered to satisfy the requirement via an exam administered by the Center for Language Study here to confirm a student's competence in the language. This is exactly the same procedure that is involved in offering any other language not regularly taught at Yale in satisfaction of this requirement: its purpose is simply to confirm that an appropriate level of expertise in the language has been attained.

We know from discussions on the Linguist List (an e-mail discussion list for linguists and others with a professional interest in the language sciences) that similar issues have arisen in discussions of the status of ASL as a language for the purposes of satisfying language requirements at such institutions as the University of Virginia.  In each case, those advancing the case for sign language were met with objections based on a misapprehension about the nature of ASL and its (in fact virtually non-existent) relation to Signed English.  In each case, as at Yale, once it was recognized that ASL is in fact a complex linguistic system entirely distinct from the structure of English, and that its acquisition by students exposes them to a culture as rich and foreign as that of any language in the university curriculum, the opposition evaporated.  We are confident that this will occur at Boston University as well.

 It is ironic that this question arises at Boston University just as we and our colleagues are vetting a proposal to incorporate a two year sequence of courses in American Sign Language within the Yale curriculum.  This proposal explicitly mentions your "SignStream" program as a model for ASL instruction.  Of all institutions, Boston University should be prominent among the roster of those at which American Sign Language can be used to satisfy the language requirement.

Best regards,
Larry & Steve

Laurence R. Horn
Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies
Department of Linguistics
Yale University

Stephen R. Anderson
Professor of Linguistics (Chair), Psychology and Cognitive Science
Yale University

[added 4/18/04]

Letter from Eve Sweetser
Professor, Department of Linguistics
Director, Program in Cognitive Science
University of California, Berkeley

Dear Professor Neidle:

     I am writing to express my hope that Boston University will soon recognize the inappropriateness of excluding American Sign Language from its list of languages which can fulfill students' language requirement. As you know, the community of professional linguists has long recognized signed languages (and ASL in particular) as full, complex, complete human languages, capable of expressing a full range of human intellectual and cultural meanings. The general public, unfortunately, is still unclear on this, and is often also unclear on the immense difference between gestural representations of spoken languages (e.g., Signed Exact English, fingerspelling) and actual signed languages (which are more structurally different from English than Chinese is). My own university has now concluded its debate on this subject. The University of California system has for some time accepted American Sign Language in fulfillment of students' entry language requirement; and the Berkeley campus has more recently admitted ASL to the list of languages which can fulfill the more stringent graduation requirement. At UC-Berkeley, the language requirement for graduation demands specifically that a student study a language which introduces him or her to a culture and literature distinct from those of English. An interdepartmental committee examined ASL videotaped narratives, poetry, and textbooks, as well as testimony from experts on ASL linguistic structure and American Deaf Culture. At the end of this process, the entire committee expressed certainty that ASL was an appropriate language for our campus graduation requirement, and real distress that this recognition had taken so long. Since that decision, both graduate and undergraduate students at UCB have been able to fulfill their language requirements with knowledge of ASL.

     I know that prejudices are strong on this subject. But I hope that scholarship and common sense will soon prevail at Boston University, as they are gradually doing at many campuses across the country.


Eve Sweetser

[4/25/04] new addition: Copy of the committee's report (thanks to Berkeley for allowing us to share this!). Also included is their discussion of the ASL curriculum at Vista College, where Berkeley students can study ASL (since Berkeley, unlike BU, does not offer its own ASL courses); the ASL curriculum at BU is explicitly compared to that of Vista in that document.

[added 4/14/04]
Letter from Heidi Reed, Commissioner, Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

"The request for recognition of American Sign Language (ASL) for foreign language study and academic credit within the College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) at Boston University is being followed with interest in the larger community... " [read more]

[added 4/17/04]
Message from Dr. Jane Simpson, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, University of Sydney, Australia

"I support the recognition of ASL as a foreign language to be considered by the College of Arts and Sciences in fulfillment of its "foreign language requirement." I understand that knowledge of Native American languages such as Navajo would be considered to fulfil the requirement. In that case, not to include ASL is to discriminate against the native ASL speakers and the people who learn ASL. The fact that a language is signed, and not spoken, does not make it less of a language."

[added 4/18/04]
Message from Dan Parvaz, PhD Student, Department of Linguistics, University of New Mexico; and Computational Linguist, Computer Science Innovations, Inc.

"Dear Professor Neidle:
When I heard that Boston University's College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) was resisting the idea that courses in American Sign Language (ASL) should be accepted as fulfilling undergraduates' language requirement, I was surprised, and a little disappointed. I shouldn't be too surprised, because universities, even those brimming with A-list intellectual talent, make short-sighted decisions based on outmoded definitions and inadequate information. The surprise comes from the fact that such a decision was made in spite of the informational resource BU has in you and your department... " [read more]

[added 4/18/04]
Message from Veneeta Dayal, Professor of Linguistics, Rutgers University

"I support the petition regarding the status of ASL as a language which can fulfill the foreign language requirement."

[added 4/19/04]
Message from Janet Randall, Associate Professor and Director, Linguistics Program, Northeastern University, Boston, MA

Dear Carol,
As you know, ASL is recognized at Northeastern University for fulfilling the modern language requirement and has been for many years. I don't doubt that once the BU administration becomes educated about this issue, they will see that their objections are unfounded.
Best wishes,

[added 4/20/04]
Message from Donna Jo Napoli, Professor (and former Chair) of Linguistics, Swarthmore College

Dear Carol,
My initial reaction to hearing ASL cannot be used to fulfill the language requirement at BU was shock. Your department has produced some of the most important scholars and scholarly work in the area of ASL and education of those with hearing impairment or deafness. Is the BU administration unaware of the high standards your very department has set for the field? My second reaction, though, was grief. The only reason anyone would deny full-fledged language status to ASL is lack of familiarity with the relevant data. And, way too commonly this lack of familiarity is due to the misconception that the language (and culture) of people with hearing impairment or deafness cannot help but be deficient, given the more pernicious misconception that deafness is a mental deficiency. Linguists have worked to educate the public about the central place of language in the human brain, but clearly we have a lot more work to do. The absence of a sense of hearing in no way alters our need for and ability to produce and understand language any more than the absence of a sense of taste would alter our need for and ability to digest food. And the very fact that sign languages call upon a different modality from spoken languages (manual-visual, rather than oral-aural) make them of more academic interest to all the fields gathered under the rubric of cognitive sciences. Indeed, it would make sense for students in the relevant majors to be required to take classes in a sign language. I hope the outpouring of support right now will convince the BU administration to enrich themselves by partaking of the great amount of information your website makes available, and thus to allow themselves to be disabused of some of our society's most abhorrent misconceptions. Swarthmore College and Bryn Mawr College have seen the light, I am grateful to be able to say. It's time to let the light shine on BU.
Donna Jo Napoli
Professor of Linguistics, Swarthmore College

[added 4/20/04]
Message from Jane Grimshaw, Professor, Department of Linguistics and Center for Cognitive Science, Rutgers University (former Vice Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers)

The past twenty years of psycholinguistic and linguistic research have established that ASL satisfies all criteria for belonging to the class of natural (i.e. human) languages. It shares the fundamental structure of other languages, and differs from them only in modality, not in character. Given these findings, there is no scientific justification for excluding ASL from the list of languages which satisfy a college language requirement. From the scientific perspective, the exclusion of ASL is every bit as arbitary as the exclusion of any other human language, such as French or Chinese.

Message from Rachel I. Mayberry, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
School of Communication Sciences & Disorders
Center for the Study of Language, Mind & Brain
Center for Medical Education
McGill University

The study of ASL is given graduate credit in the School of Communication Sciences & Disorders.  The  study of ASL, and other sign languages, is essential to the au courant education of all individuals knowledgeable about language and culture for many reasons.  The most important reason  is that the study of  sign languages reveal the true nature of human language and language creation.

[added 5/7/04]
Message from Ana Teresa Pérez-Leroux, Associate Professor of Spanish and Linguistics, University of Toronto

Dear Prof. Neidle,

I am writing to express my surprise and chagrin at hearing that the issue of ASL as a foreign language is a topic of contention at your institution. I have attended the BU conference on language development since 1988. I tell my students two things about this conference. One, that BUCLD is universally regarded as the most prestigious forum in language development, and that they should strive to be included there. Two, that by its generous suppliance of sign language interpreters BUCLD sets a standard of "best practice" within the discipline that led to the discovery that sign languages are human languages.

It is unfortunate that your administrators do not value the contribution of your own institution in the issue of sign languages. The ad-hoc exclusion of ASL in the category of foreign languages is unjustifiable on intellectual grounds, and blatantly discriminatory.

Sincere regards,

Ana T. Pérez-Leroux

[added 4/20/04]
Message from Sharon M. Klein, Professor, Department of English, California State University Northridge

Dear Carol,

Having read through the information on the website about the ongoing debate about the status of ASL as a foreign language I find myself frustrated and disappointed.

I'd like to add my name, and a few (I hope not redundant) words in support of having the BU administration formally recognize that ASL is a foreign language.

California State University has recognized ASL as a foreign language for the past ten years, and has not only a Deaf Studies Department, with a very strong ASL program, but also an interpreter training program. The very existence of such a program (and there are many of them across the
country), providing interpreters to facilitate communication between speakers of the two different languages, American English and ASL, provides a strong argument for the status of each as an independent language: each quite "foreign" to the other.

The Ethnologue currently lists 114 languages in its category of Deaf Sign Languages. All of these are distinct languages embedded in and actively defining the cultures of their speakers. It is, for example, well documented that there are varying conversational and implicational expectations of the sort that accompany the communicative use of all languages. Each language,moreover, has documented dialectal variation, ranging across its speakers. And importantly, there are artful creations--literatures (including narrative, poetry, drama, and song) across all of these. We are fortunate that the 20th century (as the 15th century did for oral literary traditions in spoken languages) has provided the visual analog to the "printed word" for these genres, so we can preserve this literature, sharing it across cultures and generations without depending on individual gifts of memory.

Another observation. Every student in an introductory ASL language class discovers in the first minutes of instruction that ASL is not "just a way of representing English".

Such an experience for administrators who remain unconvinced might be illuminating.

A month or so ago, there was some intense excitement over the ability of a lovely border collie, Rico, to respond quickly to new names for objects that he was expected to retrieve (J. Kaminski, et.a., 'Word learning in a domestic dog: evidence for "fast mapping"'. Science: 304:5677 (11 June 2004)). This excitement--evident everywhere in the popular press--highlighted the human passion for looking everywhere for evidence of new language. Everywhere, that is, except for where it exists without question: in the minds of all our fellow humans.

All the best to you and colleagues in pursuit of a reasoned decision. I am gratified to be among the many who have lent support to this initiative, but remain frustrated and saddened that the resolute ignorance demanding it remains with us.

Sharon M. Klein, Professor
Department of English and the Linguistics/TESL Program

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History of efforts to have ASL recognized as a "foreign" language for purposes of the College foreign language requirement


1. September 1991: An article published in Boston University Today quoted then Associate Dean Burton Cooper as saying, among other things:

"We sympathize with students who want to learn sign language. But it doesn't answer the needs that of CLA's language requirement. Using sign language is not the same as speaking another language," says Dean Cooper. "American Sign Language students learn the English language in a different fashion. American Sign Language is another way of speaking American English."

This ignited a firestorm, giving rise to public debate and discussion by students, faculty (although some were not willing to state their opinions publicly), and administration at Boston University, as well as letters of outrage from elsewhere as news of this spread. Discussion in the Boston University print media continued through 1994.

2. December 1992: A formal request was presented to Dean Berkey by several undergraduates--following ratification by a Student Union referendum (students were in support of the proposal by a vote of 1,879 to 366)--to allow ASL to count for purposes of the foreign language requirement of the College of Liberal Arts (subsequently renamed the College of Arts and Sciences). Dean Berkey replied that curricular matters cannot be addressed by students, but that a proposal could only be initiated by CLA faculty, preferably faculty in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures. The students then asked members of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures for support.

3. December 1993: Having organized informational sessions about American Sign Language, featuring experts on ASL, that were open to faculty members across the University, five tenured/tenure-track faculty members of the Department of Modern Foreign Languages presented a proposal to the Chair of the Academic Policy Committee. They had been assured by Dean Cooper that the proposal would receive a fair hearing by the APC, and they provided subsantial documentation to support the arguments they offered, as well as a petition signed by 145 faculty members. Among the faculty who supported this proposal were about half of the department of Modern Foreign Languages as well as several former chairmen of the department and the former head of the Humanities Foundation.

4. April 1994: It was announced at a CLA faculty meeting that the proposal had been rejected by a unanimous vote of the CLA APC. Professor Neidle requested that this be nonetheless brought up for discussion on the floor of the CLA Faculty Meeting, albeit without the endorsement of the APC, and this request was denied by Dean Berkey.


1. News coverage 1991-1994

2. Request presented by the students to Dean Berkey, December 14, 1992

3. Materials provided to the Academic Policy Committee, December 8, 1993

4. Communications with the administration regarding the rejection of this proposal

See also student reaction.

[back to the top]

Not unrelated: Recent case involving the University dealing with "disabilities" and its policy with respect to the foreign language requirement

See information about the lawsuit and its resolution at

See also:

Another interesting story...

"State cuts dictation test for teachers: Deaf applicants had complained"

Author: Anand Vaishnav
Source: Boston Globe, July 25, 2004

"This abandonment of the dictation section of the examination is, not surprisingly, a dumbing down of the requirements for prospective teachers," said John R. Silber, who helped install the dictation portion when he was chairman of the state Board of Education. "In testing of our teachers, it is important to have at least one section of the test in which there are no holds barred, a section that clearly separates the competent from the incompetent," said Silber, now the president emeritus of Boston University.

the Disability Law Center of Boston approached the Department of Education, saying that the dictation section was an unnecessary and possibly discriminatory hurdle for deaf applicants. The state provides them a sign-language interpreter and gives them extra time, but applicants still said they were slowed down.
In addition, American Sign Language is not a literal translation of English -- and yet the dictation portion required a verbatim transcription.

So in April, after two years of discussions, state Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll decided to halt the dictation section.

One might wonder whether the attitude revealed above -- and the implicit lack of understanding about the nature of ASL that could lead Dr. Silber to think that dictation tests mediated by ASL/English interpreters are not discriminatory with regard to Deaf test-takers -- may also be at the root of the longstanding BU policy with respect to ASL as a foreign language.

[back to the top]


Another perspective:

The Chronicle of Higher Education, From the issue dated June 5, 1998


The Linguistic Turf Battles Over American Sign Language


This spring, the faculty of the University of Virginia voted to allow American Sign Language to fulfill the foreign-language requirement for an undergraduate degree. The decision, which overcame an earlier subcommittee recommendation against the idea, came after almost four years of lobbying by a group of faculty members and other advocates for the deaf. Opponents of the proposal argued that A.S.L. was indigenous to the United States and thus not really a "foreign" language. Others asserted that A.S.L. could not be considered a foreign language because it lacked a literature, culture, and geographic roots, or that A.S.L. was not a language at all, but only a code for English, like Braille or Morse code.

Although the campaign for A.S.L. at Virginia was ultimately successful, many other universities have refused to accept it as a foreign language. Boston University, for example, has been embroiled in a debate over this issue for 15 years, even though the university has a deaf-studies program. The administration, led by Chancellor John Silber, initially maintained that A.S.L. was not a language, did not have a culture associated with it, and was not "foreign." The administration dropped the first two objections in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but steadfastly maintains that A.S.L. is not foreign enough to meet the university's requirements.

As someone who grew up with deaf parents and who learned A.S.L. before learning English, I know that there couldn't be a language more foreign to English. What could be more alien to people with normal hearing than that complex dance of fingers, hands, face, and body, which seems impenetrable to those who do not know A.S.L., but which smoothly and eloquently articulates meaning to those who do?

A.S.L. is foreign not merely in its linguistic strangeness, but because it defines a way of life largely unknown to hearing people. I grew up "In the Land of the Deaf," to borrow the title of a 1993 French documentary. All the people I knew, the language I spoke -- the storytelling, drama, poetry, and even singing that I enjoyed -- took place in that land, which the deaf refer to with the sign meaning "deaf world."

Entrance and exit to the world are barred not by a trade embargo or a geographical barrier, but only by hearing people's reluctance to learn sign language. As I gained contact with the hearing world, I realized that my hearing friends were more likely to learn Hindi or Chinese than to learn A.S.L. In fact, I am still disoriented when I meet a hearing person who knows sign language, so mutually exclusive do the two worlds seem.

Opponents of sign language say that "real" foreign languages lead students to travel in other countries and broaden their horizons. But must travel be across an ocean or a mountain range to expand the mind? When we study classical Latin, Greek, or Hebrew, we travel back in time and in imagination, not to existing countries in which we can share a cup of espresso with the inhabitants. Moreover, when we study American Indian languages (several of which fulfill the foreign-language requirement at the University of Arizona and other institutions), we are not led to other continents, but to communities within the Americas. So, too, can one travel to the "land of the deaf."

As for the assertion that no deaf literature or culture exists, only a badly traveled person would claim that any group of people was bereft of those requisites of human society. I can recall the critic Lionel Trilling saying in the 1960s that Latin American literature was of only anthropological interest, and Saul Bellow claiming that there was no serious African literature. In retrospect, we can see that those erudite and worldly men were, in a sense, poorly traveled.

How much more provincial are those who have never been to the land of the deaf, never seen a performance of A.S.L. poetry flung with intensity from the hands of Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner of the Flying Words Project? Or those who have never experienced the high comedy and tragedy of deaf storytelling, with its full palette of human colors and emotions? What about those stay-at-homes who have never set foot into a deaf club or school, never seen a lithe and sexy version of ska, grunge, punk, or new-age music rendered in sign and dance, never seen a play by a deaf playwright or talked with a deaf child? Such people would benefit from a total-immersion course in A.S.L.

What of those who claim that A.S.L. is not a language at all? Many linguistic studies conducted since the 1960s -- including work by Clayton Valli, Ursula Bellugi, and Ted Supalla -- have demonstrated that A.S.L. is not simply a code or an invented language. Indeed, the Modern Language Association just last year recategorized A.S.L. in its reference data base from "invented languages" (along with Klingon, spoken by characters on Star Trek) to a more appropriate listing under "sign languages." Taking a course in sign language introduces students to notions of syntax, context, morphemes, and semantics in a far more dramatic way than does studying most spoken languages.

One of my colleagues recently said she approved of A.S.L. as a foreign language but wondered when a student would use it, because "we see so few deaf people." Her chummy use of "we" only emphasized the cultural invisibility of hearing-impaired people, who make up a sizable 15 per cent of the U.S. population. While it is true that profoundly deaf people make up a far smaller portion of that 15 per cent, substantially more people speak A.S.L. than speak an American Indian language. But because deafness is a hidden impairment, you won't "see" deaf people unless you see them talking with one another.

But the utility of learning sign language goes beyond the ability to speak with the deaf. The fact is, a person is far more likely to become deaf than, for example, to become French. As many baby boomers, from President Clinton on down, begin to lose their hearing and rely on hearing aids, it seems logical that more people should learn sign language. How many elderly, hard-of-hearing members of the family, struggling with their hearing aids at the dinner table, left out of the conversation, could be accommodated if they and their families had had the foresight to learn sign language?

Nor is it unrealistic to imagine a critical mass of people knowing how to speak with their hands. In fact, for 250 years, sign language was so widespread throughout Martha's Vineyard -- where many residents carried a genetic trait for deafness -- that as recently as the 1960s, people couldn't recall who was deaf and who was hearing, according to Nora Ellen Groce's fascinating study Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language (Harvard University Press, 1985). The same phenomenon has been observed in communities in the Caribbean and Mexico. It is only by virtue of prejudice and lack of instruction that sign language is not common, since deafness affects many people everywhere.

Some of the opposition to A.S.L. comes from foreign-language departments that see a challenge to their control of the linguistic turf. Indeed, at economically troubled universities, some of which have cut back their modern-language programs, such opposition seems necessary to survival. It does happen that, at institutions offering a range of sign-language courses that meet foreign-language requirements, A.S.L. quickly becomes the second or third most popular language -- after, say, Spanish and French, as it is at the University of Rochester. An experiment in Columbus, Ohio, in which A.S.L. is being offered to students in Westerville North and South High Schools, has yielded similar results. The pilot project that began there three years ago with 40 students is expected to include more than 350 students learning deaf language and culture in the coming academic year.

While foreign-language departments may quake at such growth, they should recognize that this popularity reflects the desire of students to broaden their, and society's, horizons. There is a natural rise and fall in the popularity of foreign languages. It would be repressive to attempt to police the same enthusiasm that has made Spanish, for example, so popular in recent years.

We can only begin to understand what a world with a critical mass of signers would be like. When I spoke at a recent conference on the humanities and disability at the Ohio State University, I got a glimpse of such a future. In the audience, I noticed a large crowd of young people eagerly chatting in A.S.L. I assumed that they were all deaf, but found out that they were all hearing students from the Westerville high schools. Talking with them, I learned that, although few intended to become interpreters, they believed that knowing sign language would help them with whatever jobs they intended to pursue. One young woman wanted to be a large-animal veterinarian and thought that she could attract some customers from the deaf community.

Those students, who spent some afternoons each week at deaf clubs and nursing homes, did not have a problem "seeing" deaf people. They were already better-traveled than some professors at the University of Virginia or administrators at Boston University.

One Westerville student's experience told me more than all the academic debates over sign language that I have heard. While she was working as a checkout clerk in the supermarket one day, two customers approached the counter with groceries: a deaf woman in her 30s accompanied by a deaf and blind woman in her 70s. The student, excited to be able to converse with them, signed to the deaf customer and, taking the arm of the deaf and blind woman, signed into her hand. The older woman burst into tears. Had the student said something wrong? No, the woman replied. She was moved to tears because this was the first time in her long life that she had ever been treated as a regular customer. No foreigner ever felt so foreign as this woman did in her own country.

In addition to the intellectual and academic arguments for accepting A.S.L. as a foreign language are the compelling moral and ethical arguments. If you think that talking to a deaf and blind woman -- or a deaf man -- is an extraordinary act, more extraordinary than saying "Ca va?" or "Ciao!" to a European, you might consider a crash course in A.S.L. The deaf and the hearing would enrich each other immeasurably if we all worked to remove the language barrier between us.

Lennard J. Davis is a professor of English at the State University of New York at Binghamton and the author of The Sense of Silence: Memoir of a Childhood with Deafness (University of Illinois Press, 1998).   [Now at UIC]

    see also:

  • "A Professor Champions Distinct Culture of Deaf People" by Ellen K. Coughlin, Chronicle of Higher Education, from the issue dated October 2, 1991
  • " American Students Flocking to Foreign-Language Courses" by Eric Hoover, Chronicle of Higher Education, from the issue dated November 21, 2003

    According to a survey on foreign languages conducted by the Modern Language Association that appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages Bulletin: "In 2002, more than 60,000 students registered for American Sign Language, a 432-percent increase from 1998. While some of that increase results from a change in the survey's data-gathering, the association reports that 186 colleges and universities have started American Sign Language programs since 1998."


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