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December 16, 2002

Teens grasp sign language

From: Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter, WI - 16 Dec 2002

By Greg Toppo
Gannett News Service

The newest foreign language spoken in U.S. high schools isn't foreign and it isn't spoken. Some say it isn't even a genuine language.

Along with Spanish, French, Italian, Latin and German, high schools nationwide are adding American Sign Language to their offerings. Capitalizing on its visual appeal and a need for interpreters, schools have trained thousands of students in the language of the deaf over the past decade. In the process they've brewed up a bit of a tempest, forcing educators to redefine a 'foreign' language.

Advocates say ASL is a natural for MTV-raised teens, many of whom learn visually. Learning the hand signs and facial expressions, they say, evens the playing field for students who have trouble reading, are good with their hands or who just learn differently.

"I'm a very visual learner, so I clicked with ASL," said Rachel Tucker, a senior at West Springfield, Va., High School. "When I was in French the first two years, I wasn't happy because I couldn't memorize all those conjugations."

While a few high schools have had ASL for more than a decade, the language really took hold in 1992, after passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law required accommodations for the deaf and hard of hearing in public settings, such as hospitals and theaters, increasing the demand for ASL interpreters.

Since then, state education departments in more than half the states have accepted ASL for language credit. While its number of students is dwarfed by the millions taking Spanish or French, ASL is growing steadily.

In 1990, when the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages surveyed states on how many students were enrolled in ASL courses, the answer was 18. By 2000, the figure grew to more than 15,300, and didn't include students in several states, such as Virginia and California, that didn't separately report ASL enrollments.

To date, the American Sign Language Teachers Association has certified more than 260 teachers, up from only 25 in 1988. An additional 125 candidates are working on certification.

About 130 colleges, including the University of California system, now accept ASL for a foreign language requirement, but many more don't, giving guidance counselors jitters when advising college-bound students.

Jeffrey Beavers, director of counseling at Lutheran High School of Orange County, Calif., said three sections of ASL at the school, taught this fall by a deaf teacher, are 'just packed.' But he advises students interested in the University of Southern California and Pepperdine University, for example, to take a foreign language in addition to ASL, since the two schools don't accept ASL.

Once on campus, students often find ASL relegated to speech departments or to continuing education, alongside Thai cooking and Yogaerobics.

"It's offered as a nice elective," said Sherman Wilcox, linguistics department chairman at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Karen Nakamura, an anthropology professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, said ASL courses are common at community colleges, but they're seen more as technical training than as an academic pursuit.

"A lot of places are still very resistant to recognizing ASL as a foreign language," she said. "Academics who do it are not accorded the same respect as, say, a French literature professor."

Even state education officials disagree over ASL's status. In Virginia, for instance, a student can take three years of ASL and qualify for an advanced diploma. But in Connecticut, ASL didn't even make it into a curriculum guide of world languages.

Critics say ASL, which is used only in the USA and parts of Canada, can't be considered 'foreign' since it doesn't give students a global perspective, as learning French or Russian would. You can't visit a country or even a city where everyone speaks ASL.

And since ASL users learn by watching, it's not a written language; most ASL users read in English.

"ASL is perceived by some people as not having a separate culture from American culture," said Rebecca Kline of the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Kline, who presided over a lively debate on ASL in the conference's journal recently, considers it a legitimate language used by a distinct group of people. "If I can learn enough of that language to see the world through their eyes, I have, in fact, accessed a different culture," she said. "You can get glimpses and insights into their perspectives, and that's what we're going for in foreign language study."

Over the past 20 years, most linguists have come to consider ASL a legitimate, if unusual, foreign language. While it boasts only a small written body of work, its culture, passed down by ASL users and recorded on film and video, is rich with poetry, dance, theater and storytelling.

But Wilcox said New Mexico professors complain that high school ASL teachers aren't always properly trained and that students occasionally arrive speaking "a sort of pidgin ASL. ... They really can't communicate with a native ASL user very effectively."

E. Lynn Jacobowitz, a professor at Gallaudet University's Department of ASL and Deaf studies, said the demand for ASL classes simply exceeds the supply of teachers. "Thus, it creates a pool of unqualified ASL teachers and many of them may not use ASL," she said. "Students learn signed English systems or rudimentary ASL."

In the past, purists have worried that all those hearing folks signing to one another could irrevocably change or dilute ASL. But several teachers, both deaf and hearing, say such worries are beginning to fade as teachers receive better training.

"Language is all about people expressing themselves; you can't define who's going to be in your language group," said Lennard Davis, a professor of disability and human development at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

He said ASL, like any other language, evolves as new speakers learn it and as society's values change.

Davis, the child of two deaf parents, said many signs he learned from his father don't exist anymore, for good reason. They include an old symbol for hospital (a cross) and a pre-1960s symbol for African-American (a middle finger pressing the nose flat).

A few activists have recommended that ASL classes be co-taught by deaf teachers or that ASL teachers be the parents, siblings or offspring of deaf ASL speakers. Most scholars say that's helpful, but not required.

"I don't think it should be sequestered or stifled just because you don't have a connection," said Sharon Bailey, one of two ASL teachers at West Springfield and the mother of a deaf child. "The connection is the love of the language."

Copyright © 2002 Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter