By: Christina Pettus
I always get asked the question, “With having a Deaf mother, is the primary language in your household American Sign Language?”
“Well, you see, it is and it isn’t.”
There is an assumption that all Deaf people grow up in similar types of households and use the same forms of communication. For instance, the idea that all deaf people grow up with ASL as their first language. However, most deaf children are born into hearing families, who may be unaware of ASL and Deaf culture. Although hearing families with deaf children have more access to the language and culture today, past generations have had limited access or knowledge of the information. With the lack of understanding the importance of ASL and culture, most hearing families taught their children how to speak, either due to their own personal desires or lack of other options. Both my mother and her friend were born in the late 1960s and into hearing families. My mother grew up in Riverside and her friend grew up in a small town in a different state. Both did not learn ASL as their first language, but they now know ASL and identify with being a part of Deaf culture.
My mother was forced to learn how to speak and was not allowed to sign. She found this to be extremely difficult, and begged to learn sign language. She was then sent to another school to learn total communication, speaking and signing an English form of sign language, at the same time. Lastly, she learned ASL when she was in the 6th grade. Additionally, she was surrounded by mostly hearing family members, who did not know how to sign. Her mother was the only one who could communicate with her in sign language; therefore speaking English became her main source of communication in her household while growing up.
In comparison, her friend grew up in a hearing family. They lived in a small town so there was not any information on how to raise a deaf child. Her parents’ only option was to teach her how to speak English. She did not learn ASL until she went to college. The transition between the two languages was not difficult for her. She can now sign ASL fluently but English is still considered her native language. Her family members do not know how to sign ASL so they still communicate with each other by speaking English.
Now taking into consideration these life experiences that contrast with those who have primary grew up with ASL, we can see how my answer to this question is more complex than just “yes” or “no.” So my answer to the question is that in my household, we speak, and sign a mixture of ASL and English sign language.
In short, I am not arguing that one communication system is better than the other, I just want to show you that when you tap on a deaf person’s shoulder and introduce yourself, just keep in mind, that they all grew up in different situations. They could communication in many different ways such as signing ASL or an English form of sign language, and/ or they may speak; the most important thing is to respect their communication system, because after all, it is a part of who they are.
This blog post represents the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views supported by The Deaf Dream.