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November 29, 2002

Students learn hand-to-hand contact

From: Orlando Sentinel, FL - 29 Nov 2002

By Denise-Marie Balona | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted November 29, 2002

LONGWOOD -- The room grew silent and the conversation began -- but even then, there was hardly a sound.

With a flutter of hands and other gestures, Lyman High School teacher Barbara Chaves began a lesson describing autumn with its chilly weather, falling leaves and Halloween.

She also mentioned pumpkins -- not with her voice, but by giving the back of her hand a thump with one finger, as though testing a melon for ripeness.

What Chaves teaches, and what more Florida students want to learn, is American Sign Language.

Chaves' six classes are packed with students hoping to learn a language that, until recent years, was used mostly by the deaf and hard of hearing. High schools statewide are seeing a surge in enrollment, to almost 9,200 students last spring, the Florida Department of Education said.

Bigger than German, Latin

There is such a demand for classes that some campuses have waiting lists. Experts say ASL is the fourth-most-common language in the United States and the third-most-popular language class in high schools, beating out such traditional staples as German and Latin.

The program at Lyman, one of five Seminole County high schools offering ASL, is 42 percent bigger than when Chaves started teaching here eight years ago. That growth (170 take the class now) is evident by all the signing that students do around campus.

Stephanie Ooten, 15, learned some signing through friends who had taken the course. After struggling with Spanish last year, she decided to take an ASL class.

"It's just better for me to look at stuff rather than listen to a teacher and repeat what they say," she said. "I heard it was really easy to learn if you pay attention. I pay attention, so it's easy."

Enrollment statewide began to swell after the state recognized ASL as a foreign language 10 years ago. That's when the law changed to let students use classes in signing to meet the college-entrance requirement of two years of foreign language.

Exposure attracts interest

Word-of-mouth is that ASL is easier to learn than other languages, but there is plenty of debate about that. Its students don't have to conjugate verbs, but ASL has its own grammar and sentence structure. Much of its meaning is communicated through body language and facial expressions, so students have to learn those details, too.

Another reason for the growth may be that today's youth are more aware of their deaf classmates. In recent years, deaf and hard-of-hearing students, once isolated for schooling, have been learning alongside their hearing peers.

"A hundred percent of my kids have probably seen it [ASL] at some point -- in class, passing in the halls, at lunch break," said Lyman's principal, Sam Momary.

What's happening in Florida reflects a national trend. ASL enrollment in colleges jumped 165 percent from 1995 to 1998, according to the Modern Language Association, which tracks languages only at the college level. New survey results won't be released until next year, but officials expect the number to keep climbing.

In Florida, the number of school districts offering ASL in high schools has grown from 14 during the 1993-94 school year to 26 last year. During that time, enrollment jumped 478 percent, far outpacing growth in the number of deaf or hard-of-hearing students.

Sign language has history

ASL is the preferred language in the deaf community, a refinement of the sign language that has been around as long as there have been deaf people in this country.

Standardization began in the early 19th century after Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, interested in helping his neighbor's deaf daughter, traveled to Europe to study the signs used by the deaf in Europe. He returned home with an instructor from Paris, and in 1817, he founded the first school for the deaf, in Hartford, Conn.

Gallaudet University, the Washington institution for the deaf and hard of hearing, is named for him.

Through the decades, use of sign language has spread across the country, despite efforts by some teachers until recent years to discourage signing in favor of speech and lip-reading.

How broadly ASL spreads through the hearing world of Florida schools will depend on such factors as funding and faculty. Money is tight, so some principals have been slow to introduce or expand ASL programs. Also, it's hard to find someone trained in ASL as a replacement teacher or to fill a new position, teachers said.

Quality instruction crucial

Still another problem is that some people teach students by simply signing words and sentences in English. That isn't ASL, said Michael Tuccelli, who is deaf and teaches at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where the waiting list for ASL courses is four years long.

"Untrained teachers who simply parrot line drawings in sign-language books and [are] using English grammar are doing an incredible amount of harm to the reputation of ASL," said Tuccelli, president-elect of the Florida chapter of the American Sign Language Teachers Association.

ASL educators also face opposition. The debate continues about whether ASL, which is used in the United States and parts of Canada, is a foreign language. Practically every country has its own version of sign language.

One of the movement's opponents is Robert Belka, a former longtime chairman of the foreign-language department at Weber State University in Utah. Belka, who has written on the subject, contends that students taking ASL miss out on opportunities to study languages steeped in foreign cultures that are rich with diverse lifestyles and literature.

Belka said sign language shouldn't be considered "foreign" just because it's different from spoken English. He argues that deaf communities are a subculture of America, and their language is a part of that.

"I would say that an American signer has, with the exception of the handicap, the same cultural identity," he said. "They are born into American families and eat the same kind of foods and go to the same supermarkets and schools as other Americans."

Teachers said that when taught as a foreign language, ASL classes include discussions of the language's evolution, the history of oppression of the deaf and lifestyle issues. Because ASL isn't a written language, literature comes in the form of videos.

Stigmas are fading

Deaf-community leaders have been encouraged by the trend. Until recent years, deaf and hard-of-hearing students felt isolated from much of the world, able to communicate amongst only themselves and a small group of educators, interpreters, family members and friends, said Barbara Curtis, director of interpreter services for the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine.

"For so many years, a lot of people viewed it [ASL] as a disability. And [about] those who used it, they thought, 'Oh, those poor deaf people; they can't hear. They're disabled,' " Curtis said. "The world is opening up for deaf people."

But helping the deaf means learning their language correctly. At Spanish River Community High School in Boca Raton, where the 300-student ASL program outranks the French-language program and is second only to Spanish, veteran teacher Glenna Ashton strives to ensure quality instruction for her students.

"The deaf community is very appreciative, but they also worry people are learning the wrong kind of things," said Ashton, president of the Florida teachers group. "They worry about people learning the wrong thing because they didn't have qualified teachers."

Denise-Marie Balona can be reached at or 386-851-7923.

Copyright © 2002, Orlando Sentinel