On many college campuses, it is, but to some, it doesn’t make the cut, sparking a fierce debate about the nature of culture and language itself
Their fingers weave in complex patterns as they converse in American Sign Language, which theuniversity has declared an official foreign language.
“It shapes how you view the world around you,” said Christine Theobold, a sophomore from Streamwood who is taking the most advanced sign class at NIU. “I guess it’s how you view the word ‘foreign.'”
But the practice of awarding foreign language credit for American Sign Language coursework has been fiercely debated at universities across the country. Some educators argue an indigenous language by definition can’t be considered foreign. Others say a language must have literature for proper study.
The University of Michigan-Flint several years ago denied a student’s request of foreign language credit for American Sign Language proficiency, but the school reversed its stance in the past year after about 14 months of debate. Students at Boston University are now able to apply American Sign Language credits in this manner, but for years some school officials were against the practice because they said it lacked the same elements of culture as other foreign language courses.
“It’s not a foreign language,” said Robert Belka, a former chair of the foreign language department at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. Belka, who is now retired, long opposed requests for American Sign to count as a foreign language, though he said the university eventually acquiesced.
“These are people … dependent on the English language,” he said. American Sign Language “is not sufficient to sustain a culture.”
The Pizza Hut at NIU is loud during dinnertime, but one table of two dozen students is conspicuously quiet. The patrons don’t speak. They order by pointing at the menu.
This is a “silent dinner,” one of many extracurricular events American Sign Language students attend for additional practice. Their instructor Sara Bianco, who is deaf, said these events give students a taste of deaf culture.
Kelsey Borg, a sophomore from Maple Park, is in the beginning American Sign Language class and described her first silent dinner as a bit nerve-racking. Signing felt different in public and she became lost when more advanced students had intricate conversations, she said.
NIU has offered American Sign Language since the 1970s as part of its rehabilitation counseling program, mainly for students in that program. But lately more students from other disciplines have asked to enroll because the skill is marketable in fields like teaching and health care.
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This semester, 155 students there are taking American Sign Language, about three times the enrollment in spring 2005.
Vice Provost Gip Seaver said reclassifying the discipline as a foreign language wasn’t controversial at NIU, in part because it has been accepted at so many other universities.
The Illinois General Assembly in 2009 passed legislation declaring American Sign Language a fully developed language and encouraged schools to accept its coursework for foreign language credit.
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign allowed this long before the legislation was passed.
Eastern Illinois University accepts it as long as course work includes a cultural component, said Stephen Canfield, chairman of the foreign language department there.
He notes that many foreign language departments across the country are altering their names to “world languages” or “classical and modern languages.”
“The whole idea of language being foreign is kind of disappearing,” he said.
“APPEAR tooth = PAIN ++BAD DENTIST GO NEED”
This is written in gloss, a transcription of American Sign Language, and essentially means, “It seems I have a toothache; I need to go to a dentist.”
While the sentence seems convoluted to most people who can hear, it makes sense to Joe Lellman, an NIU senior from Buffalo Grove. He uses the sentence to show how different American Sign Language grammar is compared with spoken English.
Lellman is considered legally deaf, but with a hearing aid, he can hear about two-thirds as well as the average hearing person. He was taught in a deaf school until third grade, when he entered regular public school. Though he continues to think in American Sign Language, he lost many of his signing skills and is now relearning much of the language at NIU — and embracing a part of himself that was lost.
American Sign Language is the fourth-most studied language other than English at colleges across the country, according to a 2006 Modern Language Association study.
At least 150 postsecondary schools offer it for foreign language credit, said Sherman Wilcox, chair of the department of linguistics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He said it’s no less a foreign language than Navajo, which is also indigenous to the United States. He adds that most languages around the world, including many African languages, lack a written component.
Timothy Reagan, an education professor at Central Connecticut State University, said American Sign Language has a rich tradition of poetry, history and culture that shouldn’t be dismissed.
“One of the worst things you can do to a human being is to say, ‘Your language doesn’t count,'” he said.