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March 4, 2005

Sign language meets strong student interest

From: Daily Pennsylvanian - Philadelphia,PA,USA - Mar 4, 2005

235 students have taken classes in America's third-most-used language, up from 35 in 1998

By Ko Im
March 04, 2005

An increasing number of students are quietly entering classrooms to take up America's third most commonly used language -- sign language.

The American Sign Language program at Penn has 253 students this year, up from 35 in 1998. Since the spring of 2002, students have been able to take four sign language courses to fulfill the language requirement.

Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, director of the Penn Language Center, said that some students take up sign language because they believe it will be easier than the spoken languages.

"Growth has been phenomenal, and this mirrors the growth of sign language across the country," Van Deusen-Scholl said, "but [sign language] is not an easier language."

Nursing freshman Sofia Wronski was deciding between taking Italian or sign language to fulfill her language requirement.

She decided on the latter because it would have "more of an impact on where I'm going" as a Nursing student.

"Originally I thought it was going to be easy, just translating in English," Wronski said, "but the first thing that surprised me was that my teacher was deaf and we're not allowed to talk in class."

Several sign language students agreed that despite the difficulties, their classes have made them more aware of deaf culture.

"What I enjoy most is learning about deaf culture, about the deaf community -- how the American Sign Language gives something for all deaf Americans to come together," College freshman Ronald Berkowsky said.

"It's almost as if it's a special club," he added.

Some students said that the Penn Language Program is giving them a second chance to learn sign language.

Nursing freshman Vivian Sha attended a high school that offered sign language but took up French instead. Now, she said she is debating whether to take an extra sign language course for medical terminology.

"I'm a visual person," Sha said. Signing "has brought me to a new culture."

Nursing freshman Charlotte Nagelberg also said that sign language will be useful in the emergency room because "it's not like there are always interpreters around."

Nagelberg first encountered sign language in her third-grade classroom and said she is happy to continue her interest in it.

"It's a little confusing because you want to sign how you hear it in your head," Nagelberg said. "Sign language is a diverse language, a whole different language."

Robert Shilling, who started the American Sign Language program at Penn in 1997, said ASL is the "only visual language [where] people can communicate without using your voice."

Shilling, who started signing when he was 17 years old at Gallaudet University -- the only deaf university in America, located in Washington -- said his goal as a teacher is to combine the visualization and the signs.

"I still learn new signs every day," Shilling said.

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