I want first to thank the Board of Managers, President Valerie Smith, the faculty, and students of Swarthmore College for giving me this extraordinary recognition of an honorary doctoral degree. I’ve had a long association with Swarthmore, dating back to at least the 1980s when I first came to campus for a conference on sign language, hosted and organized by Professor Donna Jo Napoli, her colleagues in the Linguistics Department, and her students.
At the time, sign languages were just gaining recognition by colleges and universities. Swarthmore was one of the first to offer classes in sign language linguistics. Today American Sign Language, ASL, is one of the most popular languages taught in colleges and universities today, second only to Spanish. Year after year, hundreds of thousands of students sign up for a semester or a quarter or more of classes where they learn ASL and about the community of people who use this language in the United States and Canada. Today we estimate there could be as many as a half a million primary users of ASL - not counting students taking ASL classes. This has been one of the most important achievements in linguistics in the 20th century, to bring sign languages into the family of human languages, and to accord them the respect they deserve.
Now, as we move into the 21st century, it is clearly a different world than when I was growing up, or when my parents were children. Increasingly, parents teach their hearing babies basic signs, in order to communicate with them before they can acquire spoken language fluency. Many parents have told me personally how valuable it has been for them to sign with their very young children. We see shows on television featuring deaf people. Notably, this last week there is a deaf finalist in Dancing With the Stars, Nyle di Marco, who tells the audience that he cannot hear the music as he dances, instead he depends on synchronizing his movements with those of his partner. This has drawn comments of amazement from judges, fellow dancers and countless people who post comments online. But this is not unusual at all: humans use our different senses together to interact with the world. Nyle is using a different combination of skills - touch, rhythm, sensation, and vision to achieve the same goal as his partner – to win the competition.
We are often too literal about what humans can do. Many doctors will tell parents that their deaf babies “need” to hear and use spoken language exclusively, even if they can – and should - learn sign language just as well, and just as early as hearing children learn spoken language. Languages can and do exist in multiple modalities: there are whistle languages (in the Canary Islands), click languages (in South Africa), and there are many, many sign languages around the world. We are only now starting to discover that they can be found in almost all areas of the world. We are now counting how many there are, and to describe them in databases. We too often believe that humans must live a certain way, must believe certain things, and must behave as expected, but in fact, there is a stunning diversity of ways that humans use language and live in cultures. The sign languages of the world teach us that human languages can be expressed, used, and understood in other ways. Clifford Geertz, the anthropologist, famously said: “One of the most significant facts about humanity may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to a live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one.”
Any of us could be born into a community using sign language, but most people in the United States are born into speaking communities. As a result, for most deaf children, there can be a perilous journey to learning a sign language.
Here at Swarthmore College, in an environment where ideas circulate freely and with imagination, your faculty and students are actively participating in the challenge of the 21st century: to show that sign languages have a place in modern life. Even in the presence of novel technologies like cochlear implants and hearing aids, there is still a need for powerful and effective, face-to-face human communication, of the kind that sign languages can provide. To think about language narrowly and literally is to believe it exists best only in speech. To think about language expansively and creatively is to understand that it can take different forms, spoken and signed, whistled and clicked. In their breathless diversity, not one language is identical to the other, but in all of them we discover the breathtaking possibilities of diversity. I hope we never lose sight of this important fact about the world. Thank you to Swarthmore College for your embrace of diversity.