Sign Language Courses Increase in Popularity
Students sign on to boost resumes, fulfill language requirements
Chris Fay is not deaf.
Until a few weeks ago, he hadn’t met anyone who was.
So why would a fourth-year economics major with no hearing-impaired friends or family or intentions of becoming an interpreter take Beginning American Sign Language?
“It just jumped out at me,” the 21-year-old Maplewood resident said of the winter course he recently completed.
Fay is far from the first college student to satisfy a curiosity about sign language.
Enrollment in American Sign Language (ASL) on the college level increased 16 percent between 2006 and 2009 according to a recent report by the Modern Language Association. This represents a marked uptick in comparison with enrollment in the country’s three most popular foreign languages: Spanish, French, and German. Enrollment in those traditional foreign languages, which grew by 12.9 percent from 2002 to 2006, only experienced a 6.6 percent increase between 2006 and 2009.
These statistics don’t surprise Fay, who considers signing a valuable skill and resume booster in a world economy shrunk by globalization.
“It’s more of a human language. It is something that’s pan-cultural, not just a matter of country of origin,” he said. “I think the reason it’s gotten more popular is because you can use it in France, in Spain, in Germany, wherever.”
Fay’s professor, Charlotte Karras, an adjunct instructor in Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information, said she has witnessed a growing interest among students at the university in signing. During most of her 20-year tenure at Rutgers, Karras taught four ASL courses: two beginning ASL classes during the first summer session and one beginning ASL class and an Intermediate ASL class in the second session. Though each class regularly filled to capacity with 22 to 25 students, Karras was skeptical when asked three years ago to add an additional beginner class during winter the session.
“I didn’t think anyone would sign up for it,” Karras said. But they did, enough to fill her class. “I was shocked. This year, same thing.”
In this brutal job market, Karras doesn’t doubt that ASL skills could give some graduates – especially those with education and nursing degrees – an edge over their competition. She’s had plenty of students majoring in both on her rosters.
ASL also may appeal to students struggling to satisfy their foreign language requirement. Many colleges and universities, Rutgers included, accept ASL credits toward that end. That makes sense to Karras who said students with learning disabilities or trouble latching onto traditional foreign languages tend to excel in ASL because of its visual orientation.
Karras’s own introduction to ASL stemmed from necessity. Illness and a high fever left Karras hard of hearing when she was 4. She didn’t learn to sign until age 10 when she left her small Alabama farming community to attend a school for the deaf. Karras went on to graduate from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
The myriad reasons her students give for taking her classes never fail to surprise Karras. Britany Martin, of Newark, became interested in nonverbal communication as a child singing in her church’s signing choir
“I wasn’t taught (signing) as far as being able to communicate it with others. We didn’t learn the break down of the words (to the songs),” said Martin, 21, of her past stint signing. “When I found out they offered the class at Rutgers, I was very interested in taking it.”
Martin, a fourth-year political science and criminal justice major at Rutgers-Newark, foresees not only continuing to study ASL on her own with free YouTube lessons, but also the possibility of putting her signing skills to use in a future law career.
“I may run into a deaf person as a client,” Martin said. “If I am a lawyer, I can handle that person instead of having an interpreter or sending them somewhere else to get the services they need.”
It’s a situation Martin and Fay may not have considered before Karras’s class, which requires students to get out of the classroom and into at least one public event for the deaf. Both said the assignment, which led them to a deaf game night at a North Brunswick church, opened their eyes to a deaf culture and sizeable hearing-impaired community that they didn’t realize exists.
“I went into ASL thinking being hearing impaired stops you from accomplishing certain things,” said Martin, who adds she knows otherwise now. “I learned a lot more than signing. I learned about the whole deaf community.”