Teaching sign linguistics in introductory classes

Language is not just spoken and written, and even though I’ve been working mostly on spoken languages for the past fifteen years, my understanding of language has been tremendously deepened by my study of sign languages. At the beginning of the semester I always asked my students what languages they had studied and what aspects of language they wanted to know more about, and they were always very interested in sign language. Since they had a professor with training and experience in sign linguistics it seemed natural to spend some time on it in class.

Our primary textbook, by George Yule,contains a decent brief overview of sign languages. The Language Files integrates sign language examples throughout and has a large section on sign phonetics. I added a lecture on the history of sign languages in Europe and North America, largely based on Lane, Hoffmeister and Bahan’s Journey Into the Deaf-World (1996), and other information I had learned over the years.

I also felt it was important for my students to actually observe a sign language being used to communicate and to express feeling, so I found an online video of an MIT lecture by psychologist and master storyteller (and co-author of Journey Into the Deaf-World) Ben Bahan. Bahan’s talk does not focus exclusively on language, but demonstrates the use of American Sign Language well, and the English interpretation is well done.

Studying a video lecture is a prime candidate for “flipped classroom” techniques, but I never got around to trying that. We watched the video in class, but before starting the video I assigned my students a simple observation task: could they find examples of the four phonological subsystems of American Sign Language – lexical signs, fingerspelling, depicting signs and nonmanual gestures?

Some of the students were completely overwhelmed by the task at first, but I made it clear that this was not a graded assignment, only introductory exploration. Other students had had a semester or more of ASL coursework, and the students with less experience were able to learn from them. Bahan, being Ben Bahan, produces many witty, thought-provoking examples of all four subsystems over the course of the lecture.

The phonological subsystems are among the easiest sign language phenomena for a novice to distinguish, but as we watched the video I pointed out other common features of ASL and other sign languages, such as topic-comment structures and stance-shifting.

Later, when I started teaching Introduction to Phonology, we had the opportunity to get deeper into sign language phonology. I’ll cover that in a future post.