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June 2, 2005

Oh, say can you sign?

From:, OH - Jun 2, 2005

Local schools pressed to meet student demand

By Cindy Kranz
Enquirer staff writer

Twenty students from five area high schools gathered recently on the field before a Cincinnati Reds game to sign the "The Star Spangled Banner." Most of the crowd applauded, while those who knew American Sign Language waved their hands above their head - the sign for clapping.

The students' presence at Great American Ball Park is an indication of the increasing popularity of American Sign Language. It's catching on as a "foreign language" choice among students in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, with high schools adding programs and turning away students because classes are full.

It is accepted as a foreign language in high schools and colleges in most states, including Ohio and Kentucky. More than 10 public and private high schools offer it locally.

The language is still relatively young in the secondary and post-secondary worlds. But enrollment in formal education programs has surged since Ohio legislators passed a law in 1996 that recognizes American Sign Language as a foreign language.

The numbers help demonstrate the growing interest in ASL, the fastest-growing foreign language on campuses:

More than 60,000 college students registered for American Sign Language in 2002 - a 432 percent increase from 1998 - according to the most recent data from the Modern Language Association of America.

Since 1998, more than 186 sign language programs nationally have been started to meet demand.

Among those boosting enrollment figures are recent high school graduates and those who enroll part time while still in high school.

Mason High School, which has one of the newest programs locally, has had to turn away students since it started offering courses last school year. This year, 170 students are enrolled.

"I think the biggest reason ASL is a popular choice is that it is thought to be easier than the other foreign language classes offered," said ASL teacher Christine Thieman. "There is a misconception that ASL is just English grammar with a sign for every word, and that is not true.

"Another reason ASL is popular is many students are visual learners, and this provides them an opportunity to succeed in a foreign language class they may otherwise not be successful at," Thieman said.

Although ASL is a legitimate language with complex grammar, it comes more easily to some students who may struggle with Spanish, French or German.

Bob Kobylack, 17, a Mason High School junior, started taking sign language as a sophomore. "You can communicate with average people who are deaf whom you wouldn't normally be able to communicate with," he said.

His experience has been enriched by weekly visits to Sword Deaf Baptist Church in Mason, where he practices signing with members of the deaf community. "I've made a lot of friends there," he said.

Mason sophomore Brianna Lawhorn, 16, expects she'll use sign language in her prospective career as an audiologist or speech language pathologist.

"To me, it's become second nature. I walk down the hallway and start finger-spelling things. I think it's very easy, because the more you practice, the more you understand."

Sign language has been offered at West Clermont since fall 2002, when the district converted its system into small schools of focused interest. Sign language is part of the West Clermont Institute of Performing Arts.

ASL seemed to be a good match for a performing arts school, said Joe Libis, a teacher who helped develop the school's curriculum. "It is gestural. It requires facial expressions. It requires movement. ... All of those kinds of things are consistent with the kinds of things we do in drama class."

'Some initial resistance'

However, the performing arts school had to sell the school board and superintendent on American Sign Language as a legitimate foreign language opportunity.

"You name the college, virtually all of them accept ASL as a foreign language - fulfilling an admission requirement," Libis said. "After some initial resistance, they said, 'OK, go for it.' "

The school hired Ruby Downie, who also teaches in the interpreter training program at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.

Downie said she can bring something to the 44 students in ASL I and II that hearing teachers can't - an awareness of the deaf culture. The Hearing, Speech and Deaf Center of Greater Cincinnati estimates that about 3,500 people in the area use American Sign Language as their only language.

It wasn't difficult to learn sign language, said West Clermont junior Mieke Pesnichak, 17. That's because with the visual movements, all of the signs make sense. Also, she said, American Sign Language does not use smaller words, such as "of" and "the."

"I think ASL is easy because you can get right to the point and don't have to beat around the bush," Mieke said.

Brittany Byess has taken sign language for two years at Glen Este and at the University of Cincinnati's Clermont College. "It's fun," said Brittany, who wants to be an interpreter. "I like teaching it to my friends and people I work with." She's also used it to communicate with deaf customers at Dairy Queen, where she works.

American Sign Language is one of seven languages offered at Sycamore High School. About 150 students take classes in the four levels.

Not all that easy

Maggi Cobb-Wessling, an instructor at Sycamore High School, was the first local ASL teacher.

She worked for the Hamilton County Educational Service Center, which started sign language classes in Southwest Ohio, teaching 15 students at Finneytown High School in 1990.

In 1997, she started teaching two classes at Sycamore, but the demand was so high, she went full time two years later.

Now, seven classes are taught by Cobb-Wessling and one part-time teacher.

But learning sign language is more difficult than many students think, said Johnetta Johnson, American Sign Language teacher at Purcell Marian High School, which has offered sign language for six years.

Cobb-Wessling agreed.

"Some of them think it's going to be easier because there's no written form, but it's a different modality. We're pretty auditory-based creatures. It's not for anybody who is shy. It's a very boisterous, gregarious language."






American Sign Language





Ancient Greek

Source: Modern Language Association of America

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