American Sign Language gains prestige on college campuses

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A. Sue Weisler

Students gather at Ellie’s Place, outside the Student Development Center, for ASL Coffee Chat, an informal way for faculty and staff to interact with students outside the classroom setting using American Sign Language. It’s just one of several venues where hearing and deaf students can come together on the RIT campus to socialize using sign language.

With more than 1,350 deaf or hard-of-hearing students at RIT, you expect to see American Sign Language used on campus.

But it’s not just deaf or hard-of-hearing students who are signing. Like many other universities, RIT is seeing an increased demand in sign-language classes by hearing students who want to learn sign language for a foreign language credit or simply to better communicate with those on campus who use sign language.

The Modern Language Association says enrollment in American Sign Language has risen more than 16 percent in the past five years on college campuses across the country, making it the fourth most-popular language studied in the United States, behind Spanish, French and German.

At RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, more than 160 hearing students are studying to become sign-language interpreters. NTID also offers American Sign Language classes for faculty and staff, as well as the growing number of NTID-supported students who don’t know sign language but are interested in learning it. In total, the number of ASL classes at RIT/NTID has tripled over the past four years.

Last spring, 284 hearing RIT students took ASL for college credit. Only 20 hearing RIT students were taking an ASL course in the spring four years ago. The demand is so great, sign-language classes offered to hearing RIT students for Intermediate ASL I this fall were filled the first day students could register. Additional and more advanced courses in sign language are being offered, and students are asking to have a minor in ASL.

Of the 10 foreign languages offered to RIT students last spring, ASL was the most popular—with 284 students, followed by Japanese with 251 students, says Hiroko Yamashita, chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures in the College of Liberal Arts. She says there is a demand for all languages, but funding to expand programs is limited. ASL classes are funded by NTID, which means more ASL classes can be offered.

Kim Kurz, chair of NTID’s ASL & Interpreter Education program, says she can’t think of a better place than RIT to provide ASL and deaf culture classes. After all, no other college campus has as many deaf and hard-of-hearing students interacting with thousands of hearing students. “This is the perfect place to interact and appreciate the diversity we have here at RIT/NTID.”

And there are numerous opportunities on campus to learn more and practice ASL. Several events such as ASL at Lunch and ASL Coffee Chat are scheduled to enable people to have conversations in sign language regardless of their skill level. Last year, the ASL & Deaf Studies Community Center opened near the center of campus. Sign-language classes are offered there and anyone— hearing or deaf— is encouraged to drop in to chat, ask questions about sign language or learn more about deaf culture.

The No Voice Zone is held at 10 p.m. Wednesdays in the Student Development Center, where students teach fellow students sign language.

Guerin Gagliastri, a second-year physician assistant student from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., never met a deaf person before coming to RIT. After joining the varsity cross-country team, he met his first deaf person.

“I noticed that she was talking with her hands and not with her voice,” he says. “From that point on I became extremely interested in learning that language. Even today I am still interested and learning more sign. There is always something new you can learn, and it surprises me how fast and easy it is to pick up when I tried to immerse myself into the culture and language.”

Another bonus: he’s dating the girl from the track team he first saw using sign language.

“She teaches me a lot each day and still gives me the desire to learn more,” he says.