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American Sign Language as a Catholic pastoral language

October 13, 2008

Many theology and philosophy programs in Catholic colleges, universities, and seminaries call for students to study a “pastoral language” (in contrast to a “research language”) for 2 or 4 semesters. This is a terrific idea, of course, instilling as it does an appreciation among young people of the importance of acquiring the language skills necessary for communicating the fruits of their studies to the wider community. Probably the most common “pastoral language” recommended to American students is, of course, Spanish, for obviously good reasons.

Here, I want to suggest, however, another language option, one with extensive pastoral applications, namely, American Sign Language (ASL). Consider:

* ASL is the first language of over 500,000 Deaf Americans; some two to three million more persons use ASL regularly, making ASL the most common foreign language in America after Spanish.

* Fewer than 5% of Deaf Americans regularly attend a church (let alone a Catholic church) primarily because language barriers inhibit evangelization, catechesis, and liturgical participation.

* Recent advances in ASL linguistics and modern communications technologies make learning ASL easier than ever; Deaf ministry programs are now available to train hearing persons with competence in ASL for effective collaboration with the Deaf.

* College level ASL classes are offered throughout the United States and much of Canada. ASL is recognized as a foreign language by well over 200 American colleges and universities, and opportunities for face-to-face and on-line tutorial assistance are plentiful.

I hope more hearing students will give ASL some consideration when it’s time to decide on their “pastoral language”. The need is great; the rewards are amazing!

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