What Is American Sign Language

What is American Sign Language?

by Mel Carter, Sharon Carter and Dr. Lawrence Fleischer,
California State University at Northridge

Many people mistakenly believe that sign language is a code system, i.e., a set of hand gestures which are used to represent English words. They envision it as being similar to Morse Code or Braille. You just have to learn a new set of symbols

This is not the case, however. American Sign Language (ASL) is a completely separate language. It has no more in common with English than Chinese or French. Like any other language, ASL has its own grammatical structure. Linguistics research of the past three decades has repeatedly documented the complexity and distinctness of ASL’s grammar, i.e., its phonological, morphological syntactic and semantic systems. Research has also shown that children learning ASL as a native language and students of ASL as a second language go through stages in the acquisition process quite similar to children and students learning spoken languages as their native or second language. No one learns language overnight. For everyone, language learning is a lengthy and demanding task.


Since ASL is every bit as difficult and time consuming for adults to master as any other language, the idea that a hearing actor could be taught to sign in a short time prior to shooting is ridiculous. It would be as absurd to give a hearing actor a crash course in ASL and assume he could become a convincing signer as it would be to teach an Anglo actor a few months of Spanish with the expectation s/he would become a believable Spanish speaker. The Hispanic community would never be fooled by an Anglo actor. Neither will the Deaf community ‘buy’ a hearing actor.

Even if it were possible to learn ASL with some degree of fluency in a short time, the portrayal an adult acquirer of the language could give would be hopelessly inadequate. Everyone knows what adults learning spoken languages sound like. They have terrible accents and they murder the grammar. This is no less true in Sign. A person who learns ASL as an adult is every bit as obvious, i.e., has every bit as much of an ‘accent’ and makes just as many mistakes as any adult learner of any spoken language. So even if the hearing actor were given more in-depth training for a longer period of time, he would still be unable to give a realistic portrayal.

Non-native actors are simply not credible.”


Why should I hire a Deaf or hard of hearing actor?

There are many obvious reasons: to expand the artistic possibilities of a given project and thereby, to enrich the production as well as the audience’s experience; to have the benefit of the individual actor’s talent one would otherwise miss; and, regarding Deaf or hard of hearing-specific roles, to have the benefit of experiencing Deafness and Deaf culture accurately portrayed. As with anything creative and authentic, these experiences serve to deepen our understanding of ourselves in relation to others and expand the sense of our possibility.

John Frank Levey, the casting director for The West Wing and E.R., says, “When a role is Deaf-specific, as a casting director I believe I have a responsibility to the producers, to the audience and to the Deaf community to create authenticity. Calling in Deaf and hard of hearing actors also creates opportunity in the Deaf community. It doesn’t guarantee employment, but it creates access which is very important to me.

I have found that casting Deaf actors has affected the creative and production process in profound ways: all the hearing actors involved and the set and crew went through an experience of communicating in ways they had not previously experienced. It created as awareness of others who are both like us and not like us. This heightened experience increased our passion for the project which translated into making the show better. Ultimately, by growing as people, we become better artists.”


Artistic Director Michael Kahn of The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., has cast Deaf actors in two productions. “For me, the reason to cast a Deaf actor is to illuminate a relationship or a play. Whether Deaf or hearing, when I have a good artistic experience working with an actor, I tend to think of that actor again for future projects. In the productions in which I have cast actors who are Deaf, they were wonderful experiences and through their performances, they illuminated the play.”

Artistic Director Irene Lewis of Center Stage Theatre in Baltimore has worked on four productions with Deaf and hard of hearing actors. “A few years ago, a staff member who was running a series presenting new work here, included a piece by a fellow classmate at Towson University called Falling on Hearing Eyes by Willy Conley. That was where I met Willy. He was also an actor in the piece and I was very taken by both his talent and his insight.” Despite her initial concern that a hearing actor would not be able to hold the stage with a Deaf actor, Irene cast Willy in a scene from As You Like It. Instead of working around Willy’s deafness, Lewis “attacked the stereotypes the hearing audience has with Deaf performers.” As the character of Touchstone, the hearing actor made every possible mistake “trying to make himself understood to Willy’s character in a variety of ways: screaming, acting out, over pronouncing words, etc. It was hilarious, eye-opening and theatrical.

Ultimately my interest in hiring Deaf actors is due to the enormous talent out there and the extraordinary theatricality that many Deaf actors possess. It seems to me that it’s in our and our audience’s best interest to use this talent.”

Ten years ago, John Dillon, then the Artistic Director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, conceived of a production of Our Town to be performed by a cast of Deaf and hearing actors. “The idea was that Grover’s Corners would be a community where Deaf and hearing lived side by side and knew each other’s language. The Webb family was Deaf, the Gibbs hearing and the townspeople, both Deaf and hearing. Two actors, one Deaf, one hearing, played the Stage Manager, performing the role simultaneously, sharing and dividing up the character’s tasks.”


Both Dillon and Lewis remember their experiences with Deaf actors as having opened up artistic possibilities. “The challenges aren’t barriers,” Dillon says, “but opportunities that can open doors to the most satisfying of collaborations.”

From director Deborah LaVine, “I recently had the privilege of directing A Streetcar Named Desire at Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood, performed in American Sign Language (ASL) with voice interpretation. My experience was gratifying and profound due to the large company of superb actors, both hearing and Deaf. I had been asked if I would be able to recognize strong acting when the Deaf actors would be auditioning in a language I didn’t understand. Strong acting is evident in any language. When an actor is connected to her/his material, when they are truthful and ‘in their bodies’ and not indicating or commenting on their characters, the work speaks elegantly. This is fact in any form or style of theatrical language.”


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