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January 22, 2004

American Sign Language, the language of the deaf, is gaining fans among those who can hear

From: Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, FL - Jan 22, 2004

By Jamie Malernee Education Writer

She is talking a mile a minute, but no words come out of her mouth.

She's giving a report on Beethoven, yet the entire classroom is silent.

Jessica House is a junior at South Plantation High in the midst of earning an important grade for her American Sign Language class. Her hands turn, flip, brush, slap and point as she makes her meaning known, eyebrows arching. She is one of a growing number of South Florida students who are choosing to learn the language of the deaf instead of more traditional foreign-language options such as Spanish and French.

"I get really into it. I disappear into another world when I sign," House says, explaining why she and other hearing students are drawn to the class. "It's like dancing with your hands."

In 1977, South Plantation was the first Broward public high school to offer American Sign Language, but it wasn't recognized as a foreign-language alternative until 1990. Now 11 high schools in the area have ASL classes. Six public high schools offer ASL in Palm Beach County, where enrollment has more than doubled in the past six years. In Miami-Dade, 14 schools offer ASL to about 1,680 students, although only four of those schools cater to hearing pupils.

Nationwide, ASL is also the fastest-growing foreign-language offering at U.S. colleges and universities. Since 1998, 186 new institutions have started offering ASL -- for a total of 234 higher-learning establishments serving 60,000 students, according to a 2002 survey by the Modern Language Association of America.

Jennifer McGonigle-Collins, 31, was exposed to South Plantation High's program as a student, went on to study the language in college, and now is the school's only ASL teacher. To meet the high demand for classes, she teaches seven periods straight with no planning break. She's often on campus from 6:30 a.m. until 5:30 at night and was recently selected as a finalist for the district's Teacher of the Year.

"I feel like I'm giving back what was given to me," she says. "To see [students] get to a Level 2 or 3 and want to be an interpreter or a deaf teacher, that is so amazing because what you've done in such a short amount of time is change their life."

Many of McGonigle-Collins' students admit they initially took ASL because they've heard the class was a simple way to satisfy the foreign-language requirements needed to get into many colleges. Although some universities still don't recognize ASL as a foreign language, the number that do is growing.

"I'm Italian and we always talk with our hands, so I thought it would be easy," jokes Cassie Rampone, 14.

But in McGonigle-Collins' class, they quickly learn ASL involves a lot more than memorizing signs. ASL has its own grammar that shuffles word order and omits or "glosses over" certain words such as "and" or "is." For example, you wouldn't say, "I'm a junior at South Plantation High," you'd say, "Junior, where?, South Plantation High."

Facial expressions are almost as important as the actual signs and must be coordinated. For example, if a person is signing a Yes-No question, their eyebrows must arch up. With other questions, they must furrow down as the person's eyes squint.

Many signs are so similar, a flick of the hand or a slight mistake in form can have the signer saying a different word.

McGonigle-Collins drills her students on all this. By the second year of ASL, there is little verbal talking in her class. By the third, only silence.

A number of the students are surprised at how often they use the language outside class.

Senior Jessica Keene was originally introduced to the language by her autistic cousin, who is unable to speak. She has taken ASL for three years and considers herself fluent, with knowledge of more than 2,000 signs. She wants to be an interpreter someday but is already putting her skills to good use. As a hostess at Applebee's, she has five deaf couples who regularly come in to see her.

"I like helping people," she says simply.

Jason Weintraub, 18, has a less philanthropic reason for liking ASL, which his older sibling also studies.

"My brother and I use it in front of my parents if we're telling secrets," he says laughing, "or if we're in front of a girl and want to say, 'She's fine,' without her knowing."

The biggest thing about studying ASL, the students agree, is how it changes your perspective on the deaf. Before, most said they really didn't think there were many deaf people around, even though their school is home to a cluster program of about 65 deaf students.

"You would normally not notice it. But once you know [the language], you see things completely differently," says senior Darcil Gangoo, who says she has made friends because of ASL. "They are excited because they see more people getting involved. They don't feel so secluded."

McGonigle-Collins is proud of her students' enthusiasm and the district's willingness to expand ASL offerings. There was a time when ASL wasn't even recognized as a "real" language worthy of study.

Unlike other foreign languages, there is currently no state certification for teaching ASL, which educators say would help control the caliber of the teachers. For example, McGonigle-Collins says a student who transfered from another school had been learning the equivalent of sign-language baby talk.

"It is a big problem since it's up to the principal to hire and most have no idea what makes a qualified ASL teacher," agrees Glenna Ashton, past president of the Florida American Sign Language Teachers Association. "Too often many are unqualified to teach ASL as a foreign language. They may know Sign English or have only taken a few classes either long ago or recently."

Last year, the Legislature passed a law that will change this, requiring ASL teachers to be certified by the American Sign Language Teachers Association by 2006 and by the state by 2008.

"With more and more schools offering ASL, I'm hoping we can build [the quality] up around the county," said McGonigle-Collins. "If we're encouraging the kids 'You can do better,' we have to do that ourselves."

Jamie Malernee can be reached at or 954-356-4849.

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