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September 4, 2004

More students signing up for American Sign Language

From: Dallas Morning News, TX - Sep 4, 2004

By LAURIE FOX / The Dallas Morning News

The fingers are stiff and uncertain as they swoop through the air. More than a few hands drop, exasperated.

Mastering any new language can be frustrating, but Carroll High School students are learning that it can also tire your hands.

Forming words and phrases and answering questions without sound is second nature for Suan Watson. She expertly converses in the language for deaf people as her smooth hand gestures and raised eyebrows talk to her students.

More than 100 Carroll High students are making American Sign Language, or ASL, their new foreign language.

Last year, the school offered ASL as a foreign language credit, and four classes were started. The class was so popular that district officials added two this fall.

Ms. Watson teaches four introductory and two second-year ASL classes.

"The students seemed to want something different," she said. "This is a language like English or Spanish.

"They're learning every day that being deaf is not a handicap. But learning the language is hard work."

Ms. Watson said her students have to learn a new alphabet and signs for everyday words. They also must master the manual dexterity it takes to sign.

"They have to learn how to communicate expressively," she said. "Without vocal inflection and intonation, you use facial expressions."

Her first-year students fall back on their voices often when they have a question or when they can't seem to find the right sign for the word they want to use.

They seem relieved when they recognize signs that convey an action that they know: a cupped hand throwing a ball denotes football. Fingers flexing toward an invisible net illustrates volleyball.

Nationwide, American Sign Language is the fastest-growing foreign-language offering at U.S. colleges and universities.

Some North Texas high schools in districts such as Birdville, Denton, Fort Worth and Irving are offering ASL as a foreign language to hearing students who may not even know deaf people.

"They're just excited about communicating in a new way," Ms. Watson said. She said some students have expressed interest in interpreting or teaching deaf education.

Erin Burris, 16, said the class is harder than she expected, but she's enthusiastic about learning more.

"I always thought it would be cool to learn," she said, "and I use my hands to talk anyway. I figured if I was moving them, I might as well put them to use."

Ms. Watson said the class also has raised awareness about deaf culture.

After watching a video that featured a sign language conversation between a deaf child and her hearing mother, the students want to know how families with a deaf relative communicate if they don't sign.

"A lot of people, if their parents don't sign to them, they grow up and never come back home," Ms. Watson said. "Some parents just never learn to sign."

The students just shake their heads in disappointment. They can't understand why people wouldn't want to learn how to communicate with one another.

"These kids are just dying to go out and talk to deaf people now," Ms. Watson said. "It's really broadening their thinking about a lot of things."

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