More and more, students can take American Sign Language for foreign language credit at colleges and universities in the US. At the University of Oregon, no less than 29 members of the football team, the Ducks, have been taking the classes and not because they are, as the stereotype goes, in search of “gut” classes that they don’t have to show up for. By the students’ own account, ASL is a demanding class that requires that your constant attention. Even more, it’s a class that gives students a chance to use abilities that they would not be able to use in other classes, including more traditional options for foreign languages classes such as Spanish.
Says Dewitt Stuckey, a senior linebacker and second-year sign language student:
“A lot of people stereotype us and think we’re just sitting around and not doing anything. But in this class you have to pay attention. If not, you get completely lost.”
The graduation rate for Oregon football players is 54 percent, on the lower end for schools in the PAC-12. The ASL class appeals to the players because it matches certain of their abilities; instructor Johanna Larson says that the football players’ grading curve is the same as nonatheletes’. The players have been using signing symbols on the field throughout their years of playing football. Their strengths — they are athletes — are in kinetic, active learning and they have very good peripheral vision. Larson even says that “Many of them have some sort of innate ability” at signing.
Gallaudet University, which describes itself as “the world’s only university in which all programs and services are specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students,” even says it’s where the football huddle originated:
The story goes that on a blustery day in 1894, the team’s star player, Paul Hubbard, suspected that someone on the opposing team could read their signs and was anticipating their plays. Hubbard called for his teammates to form a circle. The huddle, at least in this version of its origin, was born.
UCLA running back Derrick Coleman is deaf; according to Deafdigest.net there were at least 76 deaf and hard-of-hearing students playing in the N.C.A.A. in 2009, 39 on Division I teams.
Thanks to their class, the Oregon players have learned that the “O” that football fans make with their fingers has a quite specific meaning in ASL: It’s the sign for vagina. LaMichael James, the team’s star running back, admits to making the “O” once in class, but “never again.”
My teenage son Charlie, who’s autistic, first learned to communicate (this was back when he was 2 years old) using sign language. While he can talk some now, and prefers to talk (it’s faster), Charlie’s experience with signing taught us that there are many ways to express yourself and to learn. Charlie is quite athletic himself — bike riding is one of his favorite activities and he’s a graceful runner. He’s the kind of student who learns while he’s using his body, while he’s in motion. Sitting in a chair doesn’t just make learning more challenging for him; it can be a challenge in and of itself.
Oregon athlete Stuckey hopes to be a counselor at a junior college. I’m hopeful that his positive experience with ASL could encourage other schools to offer ASL for foreign language credit and could lead to more students to taking it. As a language teacher (of Latin and ancient Greek), I’m too well aware that languages are just extremely challenging for many students to learn. ASL offers students who may have had a frustrating experience learning languages the chance not only to succeed, but also to realize that there are different ways that one can learn and communicate.
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