Studying (Sign) Languages Abroad

May 5, 2008

Studying Spanish, French or German? Your study abroad options are obvious and ample.

Learning the fourth-most commonly taught language (other than English) at American colleges and universities – American Sign Language?

Well, your options are more limited.

But not nonexistent. College-level enrollments in American Sign Language – dramatically up, according to a Modern Language Association survey, from 11,420 in 1998 to 78,829 in 2006 – have risen parallel to interest in international education. And, while formal study abroad programs specifically for students of sign language are still few and far in between, a couple of programs launched last summer offer opportunities to study a foreign sign language – and a deaf culture – overseas.

“It’s a very unique opportunity to actually go abroad and get a further specialization, go abroad and continue in such a niche direction,” Miriam Grottanelli de Santi, director of the Siena School for Liberal Arts, says of her institution's new offerings. The nearly decade-old school, which also offers semester- and year-long study options, started two new short-term summer programs last year. The first is a twist on the traditional short-term study abroad option -- a three-week long program in Italian Sign Language and Italian deaf culture for American students of ASL, interpretation or special education. And the second is a three-week long language program for deaf Americans and deaf Italians, who live together while the Americans study Italian Sign Language and written Italian, and the Italians study American Sign Language and written English.

Siena is home to the Istituto Pendola, formerly a school that now serves as a social center for the deaf community, Grottanelli de Santi says. Her own Siena school is now evolving into a center for deaf culture of sorts, with plans in place for a storytelling workshop for deaf Italians this summer and a deaf poetry festival in November. A Ph.D. student from Gallaudet University is currently based at the institution while conducting research on a Fulbright Grant. “The Siena school is a perfect place for Fulbright students to go," says Ceil Lucas, chair of Gallaudet's linguistics department and the Fulbright coordinator.

The various deafness-related initiatives, says Grottanelli de Santi, who taught history in study abroad programs before starting her own school, grew from the contacts she made at the Istituto combined with her growing interest in encouraging service learning. "I thought this would be an amazing opportunity for students to look at a city that is so interesting and so beautiful from a completely different perspective and a perspective that would force them to ask questions and therefore put them in a more receptive situation as they were studying abroad," she says.

The programs started small last year but are growing, with the program for American ASL students increasing in size from four or five students last year to 25 this summer. “It’s obviously an approach that students are looking for,” Grottanelli de Santi says.

“Just because [students] are interested in ASL doesn’t mean they can’t be interested in other languages, other spoken languages, too. And we’ve always wanted an opportunity for them to learn other sign languages.” says Sherman Wilcox, chair of the department of linguistics at the University of New Mexico, where about 1,400 students per year take courses in ASL and deafness. New Mexico is now sending a handful of students to study abroad on the Siena program in summers and last fall hosted an Italian interpreter and Siena program instructor on campus.

Generally speaking, Wilcox continues, “There really are not great opportunities” for ASL students interested in study abroad. “Part of this is because the United States sort of leads the world in sign language instruction at a university level, so you often don’t see French Sign Language or Italian Sign Language having very solid positions in universities.”

Also, he adds, even in the United States, with its rapid growth in sign language instruction at the university level, adjuncts and lecturers are still largely carrying the teaching loads – meaning faculty generally lack the structural support available to a tenured French professor, say, hoping to start a program in Paris.

And starting a program is not an easy task. Sheila S. Yoder, an assistant professor of American Sign Language at Goshen College, a Mennonite institution in Indiana, says it took her and her husband, Myron Yoder, a couple years to set up a 13-week, study-service program on sign language and deaf culture in Jamaica. In addition to an orientation, students spend six weeks studying Jamaica’s deaf and hearing cultures and Jamaican Sign Language (which, unlike Italian Sign Language -- which is significantly different than ASL -- is similar enough to ASL that students are immediately able to communicate, Sheila Yoder says). For the other six weeks, students live at one of eight different schools for the deaf, primarily residential schools, to be of use.

“They’ll assist in a variety of ways. We really do want to be of assistance to the schools, so we don’t say,’ Here we have students who can serve in your classroom.’ We say, ‘What kind of help do you need?’” Yoder says.

Fifteen students participated in the inaugural term last summer, and 17 are enrolled for a second installment this coming fall.

“In the evenings we would go to the dorms and they had a little lounge area where they [the kids] would watch TV in the evenings. I would just sit there with them. They’d all want attention and they’d all want to sit on our laps wanting to talk,” says Katie Boss, a Goshen social work major who worked at the Maranatha School for the Deaf, which is associated with the Mennonite Church.

“When I think of the memories that I made there, that’s what I think of, the evenings with the kids.”

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