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SIGN LANGUAGE DICTIONARY DEVELOPMENT
more than half of the 20th century, sign language was regarded by experts
and the general public alike as some sort of inferior gestural system,
more of a handicap than a help to the deaf who used it.
In the 1960s, a young English professor at Gallaudet College, William
Stokoe, who had studied linguistics, began to look at American Sign Language
(ASL) as a linguist and discovered that
it was full of regularities and structure, very much like a spoken language.
He applied for and received an NSF grant to study it further, a grant
for which the NSF was publicly excoriated by the reigning establishment
in deaf education (primarily descendants and intellectual heirs of Alexander
Graham Bell, who favored an "oralist" approach that included
preventing deaf students from using sign language).
A new language
With the grant, Stokoe published the Dictionary of American Sign Language.
The ASL dictionary attracted the attention and interest of a number of
who embarked on extensive additional studies of ASL, mostly with NSF support.
This work quickly led to a new understanding that ASL is in fact a full-blown
language, with all of the fundamental formal properties of a spoken language.
Besides opening up a whole new dimension in linguistic study, which is
still being pursued vigorously, this finding revolutionized deaf education
in the U.S.A.
People finally figured out that deaf children who had an opportunity to
learn and use sign language in the crucial early years of lifedid
much better in developing the full, normal range of cognitive skillsthan
children who did not. Few oralist deaf schools remain.