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Sign Language Class Enrollemnt Rises

May 12, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ Foreign language classrooms across the country are growing increasingly silent. Instead of tackling French, German or other more commonly taught languages, students are learning to speak with their hands.

``If we teach one American Sign Language course, we have enough students for three. If we teach three courses, we have enough students to fill six,″ said Sherman Wilcox, professor of linguistics at the University of New Mexico, which offers ASL as a foreign language. ``We just cannot keep up with demand.″

``I just thought it was a beautiful language,″ said Kelly King, 21, who’s majoring in ASL at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, N.C.

``It came easy to me, and it was something I felt very impassioned to do,″ King said. ``It’s one of the fields in the world where you can make a difference.″

While many schools are offering ASL as a foreign language, the idea is not universally accepted.

At issue for educators and lawmakers is whether ASL has the components of a bona fide language _ a set of unique linguistic components, a culture, a body of literature, all components of other languages.

``I think one of the reasons that people will be skeptical is because they’re so used to thinking of languages as being spoken,″ said Douglas Baynton, an ASL professor at University of Iowa. ``The idea that you can have a language on your hands is just very foreign.″

ASL was offered at 119 two- and four-year colleges and universities that responded to a 1999 survey by the Modern Language Association.

The survey, which did not specify how many schools offered ASL as a foreign language, found that enrollments in ASL classes rose from about 4,000 in 1995 to more than 11,000 in 1998.

``ASL, in a way, is much like how an oil painter views the scene and expresses it on the canvas,″ said Keith Cagle, an ASL professor at Gardner-Webb University.

``ASL uses space, facial expression, bodyshifting and unique classifiers _ like shape and size specifiers _ to express more,″ said Cagle, who is deaf, in an interview conducted over the Internet.

Authoritative statistics on the use of ASL and even the number of the nation’s deaf are hard to find.

In the latest statistics available, nearly 8 million Americans reported ``difficulty hearing a conversation,″ according to a 1997 survey by the Census Bureau. Similarly difficult to define, ASL can incorporate different dialects, personal customized signs and slang, and the amount of use varies by person.

Darcy White, 21, recently finished ASL classes _ and her foreign language requirement _ at the University of Iowa. She enrolled because she is fascinated with ASL and has been progressively losing her hearing since birth.

Learning ASL exposed her to a deaf community and culture she never knew existed until learning about it in ASL class, she said through a telephone relay service.

Some linguists say there is no question that ASL should be considered a foreign language. Others contend that they’re too accepting.

``I’m not opposed to the teaching of sign language at all,″ said Jonathan Chaves, who teaches Chinese at The George Washington University, in Washington, where ASL is offered as an elective.

``But the issue that has been raised is whether to allow it to fulfill the same requirement that is fulfilled by the study of French, Russian and Chinese language and literature.″

The language, he said, has functional limitations and the desire to equate ASL as a foreign language is driven more by emotion than reason.

``Everything that can be expressed in English can be expressed in ASL,″ said Steven Chough, a professor of ASL at George Washington, who is deaf and spoke through an interpreter. ``They can understand the world through ASL, the way that you understand it through English.″

Geralyn Schulz, head of the speech and hearing science department at the school and on an ASL fact-finding committee, said there is ``a very large interest″ in having ASL classes taught at George Washington.

``I think we could ... make a positive statement if we not only offer ASL but accept it as a foreign language,″ she said.

The lack of nationwide teacher certification program, some say, has stifled acceptance of the language.

The American Sign Language Teachers Association has certified 225 teachers and has applications from about 125 more. Only one state, Indiana, requires association certification.

``ASL is a new discipline,″ said Wilcox, the New Mexico professor. ``Universities are actually very conservative institutions. They don’t like change very much.″


On the Net:

American Sign Language Teachers Association: http://www.aslta.org/

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