Language Requirement of a Lesser God

January 19, 2005

Enrollment is rising dramatically in American Sign Language, creating debates about how language and culture are defined, and which languages should count toward colleges' requirements.

An article in the Los Angeles Times notes that students are attracted to ASL for many reasons. Some have a friend or relative who is deaf, some want to work with deaf people or in social service fields where ASL could be useful, others became fascinated with ASL and deaf culture after seeing a sign-language interpreter, and others want to fulfill a distribution requirement without mastering French or Spanish.

The best national data on ASL enrollments come from the Modern Language Association, which found in 2002 that more than 60,000 students were enrolled in ASL courses, and that ASL had become the fastest-growing language in terms of student interest.

The Los Angeles Times noted that nearly 30 percent of those students were in California, and that a more recent survey found more than 28,000 students enrolled in ASL courses in California community colleges last year.

While many colleges have allowed ASL to count as a foreign language for admissions or graduation requirements, some have balked.

Boston University is among the colleges where students want  ASL to be counted as a foreign language. The Times quoted Jeffrey Henderson, a dean at BU, about concerns over the idea. He said that his college's requirement "doesn't aim only for students to achieve a certain competence in a language but also [to learn] a language that provides access to the culture of another society. That's what's under debate, because ASL is a North American language."

In a letter to the editor of the student newspaper at BU, Henderson noted that the university offers credit for ASL, and said the value of ASL was not being questioned.

"We view the study of a foreign language as a necessary element of a degree in liberal arts, and we have traditionally viewed this study as belonging within the humanities, which focus on the literature, philosophy, history, religion and civilization of the world's various peoples and cultures past and present," he wrote. "Under this definition and purpose, ASL does not qualify as a foreign language since it is almost exclusively used by inhabitants of North America who cross the whole spectrum of North American culture, and it has not (or not yet) generated a corpus of literature with the breadth and general circulation beyond its own users that would put it on a par with the languages traditionally adopted for a humanities requirement."

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said she strongly supports treating ASL in the same way as any other foreign language. "When people study ASL, they study the culture of an American population, and get an insight into a culture with worldwide implications," she said.

Feal noted that scholars of ASL are playing key roles in linguistics, disability studies, and other fields.

While she was a professor of Spanish before taking her current job, Feal said that she doesn't see ASL as being in competition with other languages. "It's not a competition -- it's more of an expansion," she said. Students who study one foreign language are more likely than other students to learn other languages. "One language leads to another to another, so the feeling of most language professors about ASL is, Welcome."

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