Interview with Jeanne Behm
I asked an ASL expert, Jeanne Behm, the director of Rochester Institute of Technology ASL Deaf Studies Community Center (RADSCC), some questions regarding the subject of ASL.
This interview was conducted through a video phone interview which was awesome. Why, you ask? I could easily and discreetly capture gifs throughout the talk (can you say ninja mode?)
K: How and why did ASL originate in America? How did influence spread?
JB: In 1814, Gallaudet Thomas met Alice Cogswell as neighbors and found she was Deaf.
Gallaudet wanted to teach Alice so he traveled to England in hopes of finding the Braidswood family who had a method of teaching the Deaf through oral methods. The family was unwilling to share their methodologies. At the same time, Gallaudet was dissatisfied with the method. While in Great Britain, he met a Deaf faculty member from the world’s first free school for the Deaf, Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris, Laurent Clerc.
Ultimately, Gallaudet convinced Clerc to accompany him back to United States. During that trip, Clerc learned a lot English in return of teaching Gallaudet French Sign Language. In America, they both founded an institute in Hartford, Connecticut which later became known as the American School for the Deaf. Influence then spread from there.
K: What do you find is the biggest benefit of learning ASL?
JB: The issue that I believe needs to be highlighted here is within the Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing community that utilizes the language on daily basis. Many students who were raised in Deaf institutions have instilled many institutional expressions as part of their culture. As times have progressed and more students are being mainstreamed into hearing classrooms, this form of expression is disintegrating. Along with the expression goes the culture.
Learning ASL at early ages and throughout childhood provides an important outlet for opportunities to develop expressive skills. There is this growing concern of students coming into college with limited conversational abilities. If asked how they’re doing in school, the usual response is limited to phrases such as, “Things are good” or “A bit stressed but overall OK.” Expressions are not used as often as ASL linguist experts recommend. For example, an arched eyebrow expresses that the person is asking a question or is piqued of curiosity.
This response can be changed if native users of ASL preserve their language that has flourished throughout the past century. ASL benefits the user by teaching the core fundamentals of a language just as English does for the native English language speaker.
K: What do you find most fun about ASL?
- We can talk without drawing attention from other people.
- While parents watch their kids play sports, they feel that urge to give feedback. ASL resolves that urge by allowing us to sign to the kids from the sidelines.
- I can sign to someone else through windows.
- Storytelling such as this one time our family made an igloo. We crawled inside and made a fire and our family would gather around the fire and listen to my husband’s ASL stories. The boys became immersed with his expressions in the story.
- I always know what’s being discussed in large groups rather than being lost at any given point.
It was a great conversation with Mrs. Behm. Kudos to her for the insights!