IM this article to a friend!

March 30, 2003

High-schoolers letting fingers, hands do the talking

From: Seattle Times, WA - Mar 30, 2003

By Julia Sommerfeld
Seattle Times staff reporter

Never had Kentridge High School been so silent.

Kentridge senior Shana Bradley shared her weekend plans with classmates without moving her lips. Other teens caught up with friends from rival schools, all speaking emphatically with their hands.

These students aren't deaf. More than 140 hearing students from 20 high schools as far away as Kennewick came to the Kent high school yesterday to compete in the Washington State American Sign Language Sign-Off.

Students performed poems, skits and stories in American Sign Language (ASL) and were judged on their fluency and grace of movement.

ASL is growing increasingly popular among students in Washington and across the nation as a way to fulfill their foreign-language requirement. All the high schools in the Kent School District offer the course and the slots fill quickly, said Barbara Key, who teaches ASL to 120 students at Kentlake High School.

Geoff Mathay, an ASL instructor at Seattle Central Community College, said more than 50 high schools in Western Washington offer the course and estimated 10,000 students across the state take ASL.

Seattle Central Community College offers vocational college credits for Washington high-school students who receive a B or better in ASL, he added.

Diana Dillard, a junior at Emerald Ridge High School in Puyallup, said she started taking sign language last year so she could talk with her deaf aunt and uncle.

Last Christmas, she said, she surprised them by translating the family's prayer into ASL.

Other students are drawn to the language because of its visual appeal or because they want to be professional interpreters.

"I always thought signing was beautiful, so I knew I wanted to learn it. It's so much more expressive than other languages," signed Briana Brimley, a junior at Kennewick High School.

Brimley used flowing gestures and theatrical facial expressions for her performance of the poem titled "To a Hearing Mother," in which she portrayed a deaf woman offering advice to the hearing mother of a deaf child. She won a second-place medal in the poetry category.

After she was done, audience members raised their hands in the air and wiggled their fingers in ASL applause.

Key, who helped coordinate the event, said ASL has become so popular in high schools because, unlike foreign languages, which can take years to develop fluency, there are immediate applications for ASL.

A few weeks into the semester, she said, "Students will come in with their eyes shining because they ran into a deaf person at McDonald's and could communicate."

Some students said they were surprised to find ASL is a challenging language with its own grammar and syntax

For instance, Bradley said, rather than saying "I ran over the bridge," one would sign "Bridge — I — ran over."

In addition to being able to converse with deaf people in the community, ASL has a second practical application, Bradley said: Being able to silently chat with her friends across a crowded room.

Julia Sommerfeld: 206-464-2708 or

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company