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April 17, 2005

More students signing up for courses in sign language

From: Cleveland Plain Dealer, OH - Apr 17, 2005

Kaye Spector
Plain Dealer Reporter

Hate to conjugate?

More and more U.S. college students are studying a "foreign" language that is used in this country and expressed with the hands: American Sign Language. Advertisement

College classes in ASL are booming at the same time fewer college students are studying traditional foreign languages such as French, Spanish and Japanese, according to a study by the Modern Language Association.

ASL now is the fifth-most widely studied foreign language at four-year colleges, behind Spanish, French, German and Italian, the study showed. At two-year colleges, ASL ranked second, with only Spanish attracting more students.

Some students come to ASL because of frustration with studying traditional foreign languages. Nicole Sterling, 22, a senior at the University of Akron, struggled with Spanish while working on her undergraduate degree in psychology.

"I just could not get through it," she said.

She earned B's in Spanish, but in her third semester she realized she should be speaking the language much more fluently.

Then a friend "who had suffered in French" suggested trying ASL. Sterling now is in her second semester of ASL and is happily pulling A's. She said she finds ASL interesting and a natural outlet for her physicality and expressiveness.

"I talk with my hands in general, and it's like adding to it," said Sterling, of Canton.

James Lynn, an associate dean at Akron, said the burst of interest in sign language in the 1990s came after linguists - following a long, often passionate debate - decided ASL was a bona fide language.

Until 1997, ASL was cited in the language association's bibliography only under "invented" languages - followed immediately by the Klingon language from "Star Trek," according to a recent paper by Brenda Brueggemann, associate professor of English at Ohio State University and coordinator of the school's ASL program.

At that time, many Ohio colleges would count ASL only toward degrees in fields such as nursing, where professionals could expect to encounter deaf people.

But a 1996 Ohio law opened the door for college students to take ASL to fulfill their degree's foreign language requirement. Many other states passed similar laws about the same time, said Lynn, who created Akron's ASL program.

"It just took off. I think the growth surprised everybody," Lynn said.

Nearly 190 ASL programs were created across the country between 1998 and 2002 to meet growing demand, Brueggemann said in her paper.

Sherman Wilcox, author of two books and many articles on ASL and signed languages and chairman of the University of New Mexico's linguistics department, thinks the surge in popularity has more to do with ASL visibility through the media.

"We just see so much of ASL now in our daily lives," he said. "We see it on television, McDonald's commercials and movies, at public performances and rallies, even the presidential campaign."

Shannon Dailey, 22, an Akron junior from Tallmadge, said seeing people using ASL on television sparked her interest in the language.

"I thought it looked interesting. It looked really fun," she said. "I have always wanted to learn at least a little bit."

The ability to use ASL and knowledge of deaf culture can be valuable work skills for students majoring in many professions, including speech-language pathology, audiology, education, social work, allied medicine, nursing, business, communications and computer technologies, Lynn said.

"For some professions, knowing a little bit of ASL can help because people in many professions run across deaf people," Lynn said.

Sterling is unsure whether she will ever use ASL once she leaves college. But Melanie Charlotte, 21, an Akron senior from Strongsville who plans to be a psychology professor and researcher, said she has already had a few unexpected experiences in which she used her sign language skills.

The classes are hugely popular. The waiting list for the beginning section of ASL at Ohio State is between 200 and 300 students each quarter, Brueggemann, the school's program coordinator, said in an e-mail.

However popular the beginning-level class, many students drop the subject after taking the first course. At Ohio State, about 25 students drop out between the first and second courses, Brueggemann said.

"I think there's a lot of demand for the first course because students mistakenly assume ASL will be easier," Lynn said. "It isn't. In many cases, it's more difficult. I think they get a taste of the first course and decide to go elsewhere."

Most colleges make learning about deaf culture a part of learning ASL, just as students studying French also learn about French culture and history. Many people are unaware that deaf people have their own culture, history and shared perspective, Lynn said.

Members of the deaf community say they only stand to benefit with more people knowing about their language.

"It's really going to help our community a lot with more hearing people learning ASL," said Theresa Roberts, a community organizer with the local Deaf and Deaf-Blind Committee on Human Rights.

"Our community will become less isolated," Roberts, who is deaf, said through an interpreter. "So many of us are frustrated that we can't get the communication we need."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-3904

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