In Gesture Toward Change, Schools Sign On to 'Signing'

Sign language gains new respect and status on college campuses

At Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., signing up for a sign-language class means "take a number."

All eight sections this fall are filled to capacity. Some 400 students had to be turned away.

The demand for college-level sign-language classes is increasing nationally, says Diane Brentari, an American Sign Language (ASL) linguist at Purdue.

Meanwhile, more colleges and universities are approving ASL for foreign-language or second-language credit.

"The picture has changed radically" over the past 20 years, says Harlan Lane, a linguist at Northeastern University in Boston, which has considered ASL a foreign language since 1974.

Hundreds of post-secondary schools offer ASL instruction. According to one count, more than 70 universities and colleges accept ASL to fulfill a foreign-language requirement.

"Students are really interested," reports Michelle Owens, a nursing student at Clemson University, in Clemson, S.C., who along with a group of classmates is pushing for ASL to be offered as a foreign language. "Many K-12 school districts have accepted ASL as a foreign language, and students should be able to have the option to continue in college," says Ms. Owens.

Students may be drawn to ASL at first because it seems easier or more interesting than a spoken language. But most wake up to the fact that just because it's visual and gestural doesn't mean it's easy. Brentari explains that ASL has its own grammatical structure, more like Japanese or Navajo than English, where a large part of the vocabulary is composed of words with many morphemes, or small pieces of words with meanings.

The public still holds onto some myths, Brentari notes. Sign language is not the same worldwide. At least 200 different forms exist around the world. Chinese sign language and American Sign Language, for example, are extremely different.

Some in academia, however, question whether it is appropriate to consider ASL a foreign language or a second language. After all, it's indigenous to the United States and most people who communicate through ASL read and write in English.

"The controversy comes from people who don't understand the nature of sign language," says Susan Gass, co-director of the Center for Language Education and Research at Michigan State University. "Probably, you won't find any controversy among linguists."

Some foreign-language departments balk at the designation, especially those that emphasize literature.

At Clemson, the foreign-language department is open to the idea, but according to Owens, they've asked that her group prove that the deaf community has its own unique culture.

Boston University is well-known for its programs in deaf studies, but the university doesn't recognize ASL for fulfillment of the foreign-language requirement. "The issue is one that has been a long and still ongoing battle," says Robert Hoffmeister, director of Programs in Deaf Studies. "It has only been recognized as a 'language' recently by the university administration."

A window on a culture

Sherman Wilcox, associate professor of linguistics at the University of New Mexico, has followed the trend and controversy.

"Applying linguistic and anthropological methods to the study of ASL and deaf culture is an excellent exercise," he says.. "It leaves [students] with a better understanding of another people's language and customs, as well as a deeper appreciation of their own language and culture." At the University of New Mexico, both ASL and Navajo - another indigenous language - are accepted in fulfillment of a second-language requirement.

Competition with Spanish?

Many teachers in foreign-language departments have also expressed concern that adding ASL to the curriculum would reduce enrollment in other languages.

"Evidence indicates the opposite to be true," reports Mr. Wilcox. ASL students often say they are more interested in other languages - and more likely to take a traditional foreign language after their study, he says.

Back at Purdue, Brentari reports a slight shift in the types of students taking American Sign Language.

Traditionally, education majors and those going into healthcare have enrolled, but now there are more business majors. "They realize the market opportunities - deaf people are consumers, too," he says.

More than 200 students have graduated from Boston University's Education of the Deaf Program. Many of them are in teaching positions, some have gone on to get a PhD, and others have gone into different fields.

"All of them have nontraditional views of deaf people," says Mr. Hoffmeister. "How that translates into reducing the marginalization of deaf people for the future remains to be seen."

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