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Around the College: Grown of ASL a sign of the timesSenior Jeff Preston is a part-time police officer with the IU Police Department. When he graduates, he hopes to get a full-time job with a city police department - and he plans to use the foreign language he learned at IU.
Preston won't be traveling to another country or even necessarily to a U.S. region with a large ethnic population. He doesn't have to. The language he is learning is practiced all over the United States by an estimated 13 million people, making it the fourth most used language after English, Spanish, and Italian.
The language is American Sign Language, and in recent years, it has been recognized increasingly by state legislatures and educational institutions as meeting foreign language requirements for graduation from high schools, colleges, and universities.
The College of Arts and Sciences accepted American Sign Language in fulfillment of the foreign language requirement two years ago. Since then, student interest in ASL has been "phenomenal," says Amy Cornwell, clinical assistant professor in speech and hearing sciences and coordinator of the ASL program.
"We have wait lists that go on and on," says Cornwell, one of two ASL instructors. (The hiring of a third instructor has been approved.) "The demand has far exceeded the resources we have."
IU's ASL program offers four levels each semester, with as many as 100 students at a time in Level I. Cornwell says the classes have always been popular, but ASL's acceptance as a foreign language has increased its appeal.
In addition, ASL has become more visible nationwide as the Americans with Disabilities Act has required that programs, services, and activities be accessible to individuals with disabilities. One of the ways of fulfilling this requirement for people who are deaf or hard of hearing is to provide access to communication, for example, by providing qualified interpreters.
At IU, says Cornwell, "students' reasons for taking the course vary, from those who were exposed to ASL in Girl Scouts, to folks who have relatives who are deaf, to educators who know deaf children are being mainstreamed into the public schools."
Jeff Preston chose ASL because it is "out of the ordinary" and because he believed it would serve him well in the police force. Tammy and Frank Johnson, both returning students working on their second degrees, were overwhelmed by a semester of French and found the visual aspect of ASL more appealing. They switched to ASL to fulfill their foreign language requirement.
"With French, it would have been very unlikely for us to ever have a chance to interact with French people, but with ASL we were provided the opportunity to mingle with people who are deaf and to really use the skills we learned," says Tammy Johnson. The couple both work in hospitals and have been able to use the language in their jobs, helping patients who are deaf.
Although some students may take ASL thinking it might be easier to learn than a spoken language, Preston says that's not the case.
"Aside from the fact that there are no verb tenses to memorize in ASL, the nuances of the language are just as difficult to pick up as a proper accent in a verbal language," he says.
For instance, a slight change in facial expression can change the meaning of what the signer is saying.
"Facial grammar is extremely important in conveying a thought, an idea, or an opinion," Preston says. "Think about how you would express sarcasm without changing the tone of your voice - pretty difficult, but good signers can use their hands and face to express any emotion imaginable."
Cornwell describes ASL as "a living, evolving, and fully functional language" that is not only a means of communication, but also a symbol of cultural unity among deaf people. Preston says he has been exposed to more than a language while studying ASL.