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Wary of Taking Spanish or French? Raise Your Hands

Sign language fulfills the requirement at many college campuses, but some question its merit.

January 18, 2005|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Enrollments have soared in American Sign Language classes at colleges around the country, but many of the students aren't planning to become sign language interpreters or teachers for the deaf.

Instead, they are looking for a way to avoid taking Spanish, French or another spoken language.

"I thought, 'Cool, you can talk with your hands,' " said Marisol Arzate, a student at Pierce College in Woodland Hills.

Arzate, 20, who earns A's and Bs in community college, had struggled in her high school Spanish classes despite learning the basics from her Mexican-born parents. When she registered at Pierce for her first semester of American Sign Language, Arzate said her hunch was, "This should be easy. No big deal."

These days Arzate warns that ASL actually is tough to master, and so do many others with normal hearing who have studied the language. Still, it is attracting lots of students who prefer to learn visually and who attend, or plan to enroll at, schools that approve ASL for meeting language requirements.

So many students have discovered ASL in recent years that it recorded the fastest enrollment growth rate of any "foreign language" offered on U.S. college campuses, according to the Modern Language Assn. The association says ASL has become the fifth most widely studied foreign language in college, trailing only Spanish, French, German and Italian.

Yet academic leaders remain divided on the educational merits. Although the list of colleges approving ASL for foreign-language entrance or graduation requirements keeps growing, some prominent schools, including such California campuses as USC and Pomona College, are holdouts. They contend that ASL -- unlike, say, French -- doesn't open a window into another country's culture.

That debate hasn't dampened students' enthusiasm. Among those pushing up enrollment are ambitious high school students who flock to community colleges for ASL classes because they aren't offered at their high schools. Many want a different way to earn language credits for their college applications.

"Spoken language really is not my big strong suit," said Sterling Hirsh, a 15-year-old sophomore at North Hollywood High School's highly gifted magnet program who studies ASL at Glendale Community College.

Hirsh, whose rigorous high school schedule includes three Advanced Placement courses and who is most interested in computers, math and physics, added, "I knew it would be a lot of fun to learn, because it's a lot more involved than just reading from a book, learning vocabulary and stuff like that.... It's more physical."

He credits his success in ASL partly to his teacher, Lisa Chahayed, an instructor at Glendale and Pierce. Chahayed, 41, who has been deaf since birth, runs a fast-paced class, with animated give-and-take, communicated through gestures and signs.

The quiet of the classroom -- there is no speaking -- is shattered every few minutes by the laughter she draws from her students with lighthearted role-playing.

"Making it fun is my goal," Chahayed said in an e-mail. "I can tell who understands me by seeing which students laugh and which don't."

Many of her students had no ties to the deaf community before studying ASL and have no specific plans to use the language professionally. Still, Chahayed is optimistic that these students will leave class with "a brand new outlook on life and that they appreciate us for who we are and how much we go through."

The origins of American Sign Language are traced at least to the late 1600s, when a type of sign language was used by the deaf community on Martha's Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast. The language moved closer to its current form in the early 1800s when a Protestant minister -- Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, for whom Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., is named -- helped establish a Connecticut school for the deaf.

Today, it generally is estimated that up to 500,000 people use ASL as their primary language.

Academics have widely recognized ASL as a full-fledged language with a complex grammar. It relies on arm and hand movements as well as body posture and facial expressions. Although deaf people sometimes sprinkle English into their sign language conversations by finger-spelling words, ASL has its own distinct vocabulary. One dictionary, compiled by educator Martin Sternberg, lists more than 7,000 entries.

ASL "is not English on the hands," said Carol Neidle, a linguist at Boston University.

What's more, ASL is far different from, say, Mexican, Japanese or even British Sign Language. Deaf people from different countries often struggle to communicate, much the way speakers of other languages do.

Linguists overwhelmingly dismiss the notion that ASL is easy to learn, even though it lacks a written literature and comes more quickly to some students than spoken languages.

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