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January 26, 2004

Hands-on learning

From: Record-Searchlight, CA - Jan 26, 2004

Many students taking sign language to fill foreign language requirement


Janet O'Neill
Record Searchlight

It was a private joke.

Cami Swarts stood in front of the silent class, mouthing words and talking with her hands and fingers. Suddenly she laughed, and other students joined in.

Those not fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) missed her unspoken declaration: "I love (Sacramento Kings point guard) Mike Bibby."

Cami, a ninth-grader at Redding Christian High School, is one of 22 students in the school's first ASL class. But learning to sign for the deaf isn't just a way for teenagers to amuse their friends.

It qualifies as a foreign language for admission to both University of California and California State University campuses, said Bob Hylton, head counselor at Shasta High School in Redding. Shasta has offered a two-year ASL program for five years.

"It's approved," Hylton said. "I've never had anybody not get into college because of it."

Principals at other north state high schools without programs like Shasta's said some of their students enroll in Shasta College's ASL classes.

An informal list compiled by Sherman Wilcox, linguistics professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, indicates as many as 139 colleges nationwide consider ASL a foreign language for entrance or exit requirements, or both.

At Redding Christian High, teacher Alery Mollin believes knowing sign language is a valuable skill.

"The premier benefit from this class is that they can have a conversation with a deaf person," she said. There's always a need for interpreters, she said, and it can be useful in communicating with young children.

For their midterm exam, each student in Mollin's class was required to sign his or her name, grade, birth date and age, and talk a bit about the family. In addition, they were asked to name a goal or something — or someone, like Mike Bibby — they liked.

Senior Karli Gallino was introduced to sign language a couple years back by a 2-year-old boy.

"He taught me 'turtle' and 'cookie,' " she said.

One challenge for her has been controlling her more spontaneous gestures and making them represent words.

"I'm Italian so I've always talked with my hands," she said.

Ninth-grader Nick Martin said the course can be difficult.

"Sometimes it's hard because there's so much to remember," he said. "There's so many different signs."

Richard Nance, a 10th-grader, said the class will help him earn extra money in college with part-time employment. None of the students had plans to pursue sign-language interpreting as a career and many saw the class as preferable to the alternative.

"It looked easier than Spanish," said ninth-grader Jenny McMahon.

Still, they said they've already used their signing outside class.

"It takes about five years to develop a skill that's proficient," Mollin said. And when students have completed the two-year program, they're on their way.

"Their foundation has been set," she said.

Reporter Janet O'Neill can be reached at 225-8216 or at

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