The Progression of American Sign Language Throughout COVID-19

By: Cheryl

American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual language in which the brain processes linguistic information through the eyes. The movement of the hands, body, and facial expressions all play essential parts in conveying information. In spoken language, emotions and questions can be shown by raising the pitch of voices or adjusting the word order. However, ASL users express emotions and ask questions by raising their eyebrows, widening their eyes, and tilting their bodies forward. There is no universal Sign language, as different Sign languages are used in different countries and regions. One such example is la langue des signes québécoise (LSQ).

Learning ASL can be beneficial as it improves the quality of communication for hearing people, deaf or hard of hearing family members, students, residents and people in general in community. This blog will explore the increase in ASL opportunities including Ontario offering high school students second-language courses in American Sign Language (ASL) and Langue des Signes Québécoise (LSQ), and the collaboration between Harvard’s Center for Integrated Quantum Materials and The Learning Center for the Deaf developing sign language for quantum science. Furthermore, I will touch upon the adjustments that ASL users have had to make due to the increase of videoconferencing during COVID-19.

As was announced earlier this month, Ontario is becoming one of Canada’s first jurisdictions to offer high school students their second-language courses in American Sign Language (ASL) and Langue des Signes Québécoise (LSQ). Stephen Lecce, the Minister of Education, says that, “offering students the chance to learn ASL or LSQ can expand their language skills while developing greater understanding of Ontario’s ASL and LSQ Culture.” Raymond Cho, The Minister of Seniors and Accessibility, also stated, “by giving high schools students the opportunity to learn ASL and/or LSQ, we are increasing language and cultural skills.” The Ministry of Education has been working with the Ontario College of Teachers to add new additional qualifications to the College’s regulation so that teachers can receive training in how to teach ASL as a second language and LSQ langue seconde. This amazing opportunity to learn ASL and LSQ will start in September 2021.

Continuing on education, ASL does not exist for numerous STEM concepts, and interpreters are forced to fingerspell words to communicate concepts. Spelling out each word can be difficult at times and make the learning experience more challenging. However, a collaboration between Harvard’s Center for Integrated Quantum Materials and The Learning Center for the Deaf targets this challenge. The process includes generating a glossary of terms, developing educational modules, which then determines which quantum science topics to address, and eventually determines how content should be presented and how different terms are connected. This incredible collaboration aims to increase STEM opportunities for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and continue sharing and expanding the team’s efforts by focusing on different science content areas.

While there are fantastic education opportunities that involve ASL on the rise, COVID-19 has reshaped Sign language. Deaf people are adapting to signs to accommodate the limitations of video communication while being at home. The increased reliance on videoconferencing on platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet has increased exponentially, and inevitably transformed how Deaf people communicate. One adaptation arises from the result of a video meeting’s limited frame size. Many words are pronounced through hands, fingers and the whole body itself; it can be seen as a challenge to read signs that take up a lot of space or even small ones that involve finer details. Although there are limitations on ASL, linguistic shifts are inevitable, and videoconferencing platforms can also empower Deaf people, as some features or tools give people multiple avenues for learning and communication.

There have been significant developments of the ASL language during, and due to, the global pandemic, whether it is the increase of educational opportunities in North America or the adaptation ASL users must make due to certain limitations. I can only imagine the amazing progression Sign languages will undergo over the next few years.