Language: Necessity and Choice
Human beings are social animals, communicating with each other almost constantly through sounds and movements. From the moment we are born, we are engaged in the learning and use of one or more complex languages. This imperative to employ language is deeply embedded in our genetic heritage.
Photo: Student undergoing an audiological test at the Virginia School for the Deaf – Hampton
Just as geographical or cultural conditions isolate populations that create distinct spoken languages, so are Deaf communities and sign languages generated by the same forces. Hundreds of sign languages are in use around the world today. While each is distinct, all use the shape, orientation, position, and movement of the hands, combined with subtle uses of facial expression and movement of the head and body.
Deaf people also cultivate to varying degrees the difficult arts of lipreading and speaking (tasks made more or less difficult by, among other factors, the degree of deafness and the age at which deafness occurred). Lipreading is difficult and imprecise in any language, and is made even trickier by the many sounds and words in English that look identical on the lips.
Whenever significant numbers of deaf people have congregated in one place, as in large cities or in residential schools, Deaf communities have come into existence. The little-known history of the American Deaf community parallels the experiences and struggles of other minority groups. Deaf Americans have organized politically to protect and promote their interests, formed local, state, and national organizations, established newspapers and magazines, founded schools, and gathered in churches where ASL was the language of song and sermon alike. The great majority have found not just their friends but their spouses within the Deaf community. American Sign Language (ASL) is the visual/gestural language that is the primary means of communication of deaf people in America and parts of Canada.