Another Argument For Learning Sign Language

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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85 comments

New G.
W. C.4 years ago

Great article, thank you.

Joe R.
Joe R.4 years ago

ASL is a great choice for a second language.

Lika S.
Lika S.4 years ago

For American students, ASL should be able to count as a second language. I think maybe even helpful in high school as well. When we go to work, we may encounter the hearing impaired. So, say you're working as a cashier at McDonald's or Walmart, what are you going to do? Verify information you can't convey? Plus, it's cool to have a private conversation right out in public. ;)

Shalvah Landy
Past Member 4 years ago

I think it would be great to teach sign language at schools all over the world, it should be taught as the first language of that country, before teaching a "second" language.

Lindsey DTSW
.4 years ago

I think it's a good idea to offer ASL as a language elective. It's a difficult thing to learn and not something I'd use often enough to learn myself - but for some it would be very useful.

Yasser K, you used the phrase "deaf mute". However deaf people aren't intrinsically mute - they can and do not only make sounds but in many cases learn to speak quite well.

Janice Redinger
Janice Redinger4 years ago

This is a FINE idea. I had it before my strokes, and now I have to learn it again. Even using one hand, I was able to communicate. It would be a great elective, in any school.

Sharon H.
Sharon H.4 years ago

I have a deaf cat and have taught her some signs that may not be the correct signs for what I tell her, but she usually gets the message. I use the correct signing when I tell her "I love you."

Annabel Bland
Past Member 4 years ago

I know the alpahbet and a few random signs (such as dessert!) but that's pretty much it. I'd love to learn more, but I don't think that most colleges accept ASL as a foreign language, so I would need to take another language, and that would be too much.

Past Member
Inari T.4 years ago

There are so many benefits to being bilingual, and if everyone were to learn Auslan (or whatever your national equivalent is) from preschool onwards, there would be benefits for all concerned - hearing students would gain the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, and hearing-impaired students would be included in general schooling instead of treated as "special cases".

Helen Allard
Helen A.4 years ago

I would love to learn how to sign and learn spanish as it looks like spanish is taking over...Educatin is so very important in this country and to be able to communicate and help others to me is very important...I wish that there was a place that they had classes for this....