Sign language courses become increasingly popular at college

Amanda Garrett

American Sign Language courses have increased 432 percent at universities across the nation. Above “sign language” is spelled using ASL.

Credit: Andrew popik

Learning a foreign language can be one of the most dreaded rituals of college life. In recent years, students are waving good-bye to conjugation and grammar and saying it with their hands.

American Sign Language has become one of the most popular foreign languages offered at college campuses, including Kent State.

Nationally, the study of ASL has increased 432 percent since 1998, according to the Modern Language Association.

Sign language is now the fifth most-studied foreign language at four-year colleges, ranking just behind Spanish, French, German and Italian.

Kent State has offered a bachelor’s degree in ASL since 2002, and the program is currently looking for a tenure-track faculty member to anchor the program, said Harold Fry, adviser of the ASL program.

Most students who major in sign language combine it with an education minor, although ASL can be useful in many careers, Fry said.

“Students pursuing other majors could find our minor program useful,” he said. “It is a good supplement for majors in nursing, social work or justice studies.”

One of the reasons for ASL’s rapid growth is a 1996 Ohio law that allowed ASL to be taught as an official foreign language. Before that time, ASL could only be taken by nursing or other health care majors.

ASL professor Steve Vickery said he is surprised by the demand for classes.

“When it is time to schedule classes for the next semester, the ASL classes usually fill up in less than four hours,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Some students searching for an easy elective think that ASL will be a breeze, ASL professor Karen Wenzel said.

“Some students come in with the idea that ASL is an easy A,” she said. “In reality, it’s a difficult language to master. Students need to study the language and socialize and be active with deaf individuals.”

Elizabeth Truong, sophomore American Sign Language major, said ASL is much more difficult than the French classes she took in high school.

“For me, the hardest thing about sign language is not talking,” said Truong, who wants to be an interpreter when she graduates. “It’s hard for me to use my hands to communicate and not my lips.”

The growth of ASL can only help the deaf community, Wenzel said.

“It is a big sign of respect to the deaf community when people take the time to learn their language,” she said. “I hope that in the future high schools, middle schools and elementary schools get into the act, so children can be exposed to ASL at a young age.”

Contact news correspondent Amanda Garrett at [email protected].