What is an American Sign Language Degree?

American Sign Language (ASL) is the first language of many deaf people in the United States and Canada. It is a visual, gesture-based language used by ASL interpreters that employs signs made with the hands, facial expressions, and body posture and movements to communicate.

Degree programs in American Sign Language teach the vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, word/sentence order, and intonation of ASL – conveyed by hand shape, palm orientation, hand movement, hand location, and gestures. Programs also expose students to the culture of the Deaf community.

Program Options

In general, American Sign Language students can choose between two possible education tracks. One is American Sign Language/English interpretation and the other is American Sign Language and Deaf Culture. Both tracks offer certificate, associate degree, and bachelor’s degree options.

Certificate in American Sign Language/English Interpretation – One Year Duration
These programs are generally aimed at individuals who are already fluent in American Sign Language and wish to work in the field of ASL/English interpretation.

Associate Degree in American Sign Language/English Interpretation – Two Year Duration
In many cases, the people who pursue an Associate Degree in ASL/English Interpretation do so to be able to communicate with deaf clients or deaf family members. Doctors, lawyers, and parents of deaf children are examples. However, in some states, graduates with an associate degree in the field qualify to work as professional ASL interpreters.

Bachelor’s Degree in American Sign Language/English Interpretation – Four Year Duration
The Bachelor’s Degree in ASL/English Interpretation is generally the accepted standard for those working in the field. The bachelor’s curriculum combines training to accomplish ASL fluency and to understand the ethical aspects of ASL interpretation. Internships within the Deaf community are typically part of the coursework at this level. Earning a Bachelor’s Degree in ASL/English interpretation is the best preparation for writing the National Interpreter Certification Exam administered by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

Here are some samples of the kinds of courses that make up the ASL/English Interpretation curriculum. Of course, the depth to which these subjects are addressed varies depending on whether a student selects a certificate, associate, or bachelor’s program.

• The Interpreting Profession – overview of the interpreting profession, including skills, responsibilities, ethics, laws, employment options, and certification
• Interpreting Inquiry Texts – interpretation of inquiry texts such as job interviews
• Interpreting Narrative Texts – interpretation of narrative texts such as personal narratives and storytelling
• Interpreting Expository Texts – interpretation of expository texts such as lectures and procedural texts (texts that explain how to complete a task or process)
• Interpreting Persuasive Texts – interpretation of persuasive texts such as solicitation (example: seeking funds or donations) and political speeches
• Interpreting for the Theater – interpretation for theatrical rehearsals and performances
• Interpreting Practicum – practical experiences serving the Deaf
• Ethics and Interpreting – the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf code of ethics
• Ethical Fieldwork – practical experiences that present opportunities to deal with and make decisions around ethical issues in interpreting
• Interpreting Research Project – a research project on some aspect of ASL/English interpretation

Certificate in American Sign Language and Deaf Culture – Up to One Year Duration
Students who earn this credential typically go on to complete further education. The certificate program is an exploratory program and does not generally qualify certificate holders for a particular career.

Associate Degree in American Sign Language and Deaf Culture – Two Year Duration
These degree programs prepare students to work with the Deaf community in entry-level and some mid-level roles.

Bachelor’s Degree in American Sign Language and Deaf Culture – Four Year Duration
The Bachelor’s Degree in American Sign Language and Deaf Culture is in most cases the accepted standard for those working with and supporting the Deaf community.

Below are some samples of the kinds of courses that make up the ASL and Deaf Culture curriculum. Of course, the depth to which these subjects are addressed varies depending on whether a student selects a certificate, associate, or bachelor’s program.

• Elementary ASL – development of receptive and expressive skills, finger spelling, building of vocabulary, grammar structure, facial expressions, and body postures
• Intermediate ASL – expands upon the learning objectives of the elementary level course above; using ASL to respond to inquiries, construct narratives, tell stories, and engage in debates; understanding regional and ethnic signing differences
• Advanced ASL – development of ASL competence in formal and consulting settings
• Deaf People in Society – Deaf history and culture, examination of Deaf communities as linguistic and cultural minorities, attitudes toward deaf people and signing, signing technology, organizations and associations for the Deaf
• Language and Linguistics – discussion of the primary sub-areas of linguistics: phonetics (speech sounds), phonology (patterning of sounds), morphology (word structure), syntax (sentence structure), semantics (meaning), and pragmatics (language in context)
• ASL Linguistics – comparison of the structural properties of ASL with other languages

Degrees Similar to American Sign Language

Audiology degree programs prepare students to work as audiologists, specialized doctors trained to measure hearing ability and function and provide hearing rehabilitation. Subject areas covered include hearing disorders, genetics and hearing loss, hearing conservation, speech science and perception, pediatric audiology, geriatric audiology, and forensic audiology.

Speech-Language Pathology
Degree programs in speech-language pathology teach students how to diagnose and treat speech and language disorders, voice disorders, and swallowing disorders. The curriculum addresses word-finding issues, social communication problems, literacy challenges, and vocal quality.

Communicative Disorders
This degree is closely connected to the speech-language pathology degree. A communicative disorders assistant is trained to assist a speech-language pathologist with the delivery of therapy. The curriculum focuses on communication disorders such as articulation disorders, phonological disorders, aphasia, delayed language, acquired deafness, and autism-related disorders.

Foreign Languages and Literatures
Foreign languages and literatures degree programs teach students how to speak, read, and write foreign languages. Some programs focus on the linguistic structure of the studied language and others on its major written literary works. Many programs cover both of these components. Among the most common languages offered in these programs are French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Bengali, Hindustani, and Malay. It is typical for students to focus their studies on two languages.

Linguistics explores the nature of language variations and dialects, how language evolves over time, how it is processed and stored in the human brain, and how it is acquired. It is the scientific study of language and communication, both within a single language and across language groups. Its primary sub-areas are phonetics – the study of the production, acoustics, and hearing of speech sounds; phonology – the patterning of sounds; morphology – the structure of words; syntax – the structure of sentences; semantics – meaning; and pragmatics – language in context.

The scientific study of the mind and behavior is the focus of psychology degree programs. In simple terms, psychology students study the way that humans and animals act, feel, think, and learn.

Degree programs in translation prepare students for careers as translators. The work of a translator is to convert written documents and spoken text from the ‘source’ language to the ‘target’ language. The curriculum covers translation of various kinds of content, from technical, scientific, and educational to legal, commercial, and literary. Students learn about the history of translation, the sociology of translation, media and translation, and how to use translation memory software and specialized dictionaries.

Skills You'll Learn

The process of learning a foreign language is a workout for the brain. Because language learning is complex, it improves cognitive skills and overall brain function. Quite simply, it makes the brain stronger. This means that graduates of an American Sign Language degree program bring more than their language competency to their work. Studies have shown that adult speakers of more than one language typically:

• have higher general intelligence
• are more creative
• are more patient
• are better listeners
• have better concentration abilities
• have greater mental flexibility
• are better at planning and making decisions
• score higher on reading, vocabulary, and math tests
• are more aware of their surroundings
• are more likely to understand different points of view
• are less likely to fall for marketing ploys
• are better at multi-tasking
• have better memory and memorization skills

What Can You Do with an American Sign Language Degree?

The settings listed below represent some of the areas in which graduates with a degree in American Sign Language may be employed on a full or part time basis or contracted as a freelancer. Depending on their specific roles, they may use their knowledge of ASL either to work and communicate directly within these sectors or to provide ASL/English interpretation or speech-to-text instant translation for others who work within them.

• Government departments, agencies, and institutions
• Hospitals and public and private health and rehabilitation clinics
• Mental health clinics
• Social service agencies
• Kindergartens, schools, colleges, and universities
• Courts and other legal settings
• Law Enforcement and Corrections
• Community and arts organizations
• Television and other media
• Theater
• Hearing and speech agencies
• Speaker bureaus and agencies

In addition to practising their profession in the above environments, it is also possible for American Sign Language graduates to consider undertaking further education to apply their skills in roles such as:

Speech-Language Pathologist
• Communicative Disorders Assistant / Specialist
Occupational Therapist / Physical Therapist
Paramedic / Emergency Medical Technician
Special Education Teacher
Childcare Worker
Social Worker
• Employment Counselor
Travel agent / Tour guide


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