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ASL Growth a Sign of the Times

American Sign Language classes now meet CAS foreign language requirement

Charles Glenn, interim dean of the School of Education. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Students looking for an alternative to traditional choices such as French, German, or Spanish have a new option when it comes to fulfilling their foreign language requirement — one they can learn without opening their mouths.

The College of Arts and Sciences began offering American Sign Language as part of its foreign language requirement last spring, and despite a slow start, classes have grown steadily.

“It’s been quite a while in coming,” says Charles Glenn, interim dean of the School of Education, which oversees the ASL classes. “There’s a real interest. It’s very interesting to me to see it. I know my own kids have been interested in ASL.”

That interest, Glenn says, is paying off in enrollment.

The classes cover four sections, ASL 1 through ASL 4, and as of this week, 61 students have registered for the spring ASL 1 class and 46 for ASL 2. Another 20 students have registered for ASL 4.

Although the classes are in American Sign Language, which differs from sign languages used in other countries, knowledge of English doesn’t equate to automatic fluency in ASL.

“When they take the course, they are in for a rude awakening,” says Marlon Kuntze, an SED associate professor and codirector of the SED Program in Deaf Studies, who teaches ASL. Many students who sign up expecting an easy class get a shock when they learn the language is distinct from English, with its own grammar, vocabulary, and syntax just like any other foreign language.

“In my experience, when students walk into the classroom, they are forced to use their eyes, versus using their ears,” ASL coordinator Dana Schlang says. “Many expect to learn a language in an auditory way, but they learn this language manually. The ears become irrelevant, because it’s a different mode of learning.”

Convincing University administrators that the difference represented an entirely new language, however, proved an uphill battle. Although ASL classes had been offered in one form or another since 1981, it took until last spring for CAS to include ASL as part of the foreign language requirement.

The resistance stemmed in part from the misunderstanding that ASL is simply “signed” English — it is, in fact, a fully formed, distinct language, with its own history, evolution, and culture. Like any other language, Kuntze says, sign language emerges and evolves naturally if enough deaf people are born and live in a fixed location. “Any time you have enough people in any location, if there are deaf people, sign language will emerge,” he says.

The push to recognize ASL as a valid, unique language came in part because the few students taking the classes were often forced to drop them to meet other requirements, according to Schlang. “They were very enthusiastic about taking more courses,” she says, “but realized they would have to satisfy the foreign language course requirement.”

She hopes that the addition of ASL as a choice for the University’s foreign language requirement will help raise the language’s profile on campus. “What I’ve seen is the student population is very motivated about the classwork,” says Schlang, who regularly spots students using ASL on campus.

“The majority of students really do show motivation and energy,” she says, “and I also see that as promoting the awareness of ASL.”