The forgotten language

In the previous post you’ve seen how expressive is the number of Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog and French speakers, but the survey failed to mention a very important minority language: American Sign Language. Here is an article from the Gallaudate University Library which discusses the issue of disregarding ASL, as well as a failing to properly estimating its number of speakers:

American Sign Language (ASL) is commonly said to be “the fourth most-used language in the United States” (alternatively phrased as “the third most-used non-Englishlanguage in the U.S.”). This claim has been around since the early 1970s. We have seen an assertion that this comes from research done for the Bilingual Courts Act of 1974, which supposedly established that ASL was the fourth most-used language in the U.S. The strongest claim is asserted by Mitchell, Young, Bachleda, and Karchmer of the Gallaudet Research Institute, who in 2004 traced the origin of this claim to a single study done in 1974. This study, known as the National Census of the Deaf Population (NCDP), asserted that the total of sign language users in the U.S. was close to a half-million strong.

However, the 2004 survey revealed several serious flaws in the NCDP, not least of which included the caveat that American Sign Language, specifically, was not pointed out in the course of the study; no distinction was made among the various sign language systems then extant in the deaf population. As such, those numbers probably do not reflect the true number of ASL users in 1974, nor do they offer substantive guidelines for the possible population of ASL users in 2010.

Other data can still be used to draw reasonably plausible conclusions, however; Harlan Lane, Robert Hoffmeister, and Ben Bahan say in A journey into the deaf-world (San Diego, Calif.: DawnSignPress, 1996, p.42):

ASL is the language of a sizeable minority. Estimates range from 500,000 to two million speakers in the U.S. alone; there are also many speakers in Canada. Compared to data from the Census Bureau, which counts other language minorities, ASL is the leading minority language in the U.S. after the “big four”: Spanish, Italian, German, and French.

In other words, according to Lane, Hoffmeister and Bahan, ASL is currently the sixth most-used language in the U.S., or the fifth most-used non-Englishlanguage in the U.S.

However, depending on the figures and data chosen, other interpretations yield other rankings. For example, consider these figures for “Non-English Language Speaking Americans, 2000”, extracted from the 2004 Time Almanac (for languages “spoken at home” and also supplied by the Census Bureau, which ignored ASL when surveying languages):

Spanish  28,101,052
Chinese 2,022,143
French 1,643,838
German 1,383,442
Tagalog 1,224,241
Vietnamese 1,009,627
Italian 1,008,370
Korean 894,063
Russian 706,242
Polish 667,414
Arabic 614,582
Portuguese 564,630
French Creole 453,368

Using the high figure of 2,000,000 users of ASL, it would place third on this list, behind Spanish and Chinese. On the other hand, using the low figure of 500,000, ASL would fall to 12th place on this list, behind Portuguese and ahead of French Creole. Intermediate estimates for ASL obviously will produce intermediate ranking results.

To add to the confusion, in its article on American Sign Language this almanac repeats the common assertion that ASL “is the fourth most used language in the United States today.” Using the list above, this would imply an ASL-using population greater than 1,643,838 but less than 2,022,143 users (between Chinese and French). However, there simply is no firm basis for this or any other estimate.

Ross E. Mitchell, Travas A. Young, Bellamie Bachleda, and Michael A. Karchmer of the Gallaudet Research Institute (GRI) wrote an article entitled “How Many People Use ASL in the United States? Why Estimates Need Updating” which was published in Sign Language Studies (Spring 2006, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp. 306-335). The draft of the manuscript is available on the GRI web site.

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Prepared by Tom Harrington
Reference and Instruction Librarian
May 2004Updated: May, 2010