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Learning the language sign by sign

American Sign Language teachers are hoping to expand their MU course
to accommodate an increasing number of students
Monday, May 3, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:33 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

Your right hand starts touching your chin, then moves down, palm up, to rest on the other palm. You’ve just said “thank you” in American Sign Language, a form of communication for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Such hand expressions have become more frequent in recent months at MU — and not just among the students who rely on them.

High interest

Driven by personal and professional fulfillment, the demand for MU’s introductory-level ASL class has become so intense that the university plans to discuss expanding it.

Doctoral student Stephanie Logan, who teaches MU’s ASL class, said that between the fall and winter semesters ASL enrollment jumped from eight to 46 students.

“I got over 20 e-mail responses of people wanting to register but couldn’t,” said Logan, whose class had to be capped even after 11 spots were added by her department — education counseling and school psychology.

“Those filled within 24 hours,” she said.

Until last fall, ASL had never been offered at MU. Next fall’s class is already at full capacity because there are spatial limitations involved in teaching ASL, Logan said.

But that’s not enough. Logan and MU students and faculty would like to see the university expand her course and consider classifying it as a foreign language.

[photo]

Alex Miller, one of the two interpreters for the American Sign Language class, interprets a student’s oral report for teacher Stephanie Logan, who uses sign language.

Logan was approached recently by the office of Philip Dale, professor and department chairman of the communication science and disorders department at MU to discuss the future of the class. Dale said he intends to work with his department on expanding and reclassifying ASL and hopes deaf studies in general can be strengthened at MU.

“We have a very strong case for ASL,” Dale said. “I am very eager to work for having it offered.”

More than motions

Dale said ASL is often perceived as mime or pantomime but is truly “its own language with its own grammar.”

“It’s fascinating both for its similarities (to English) and its uniqueness,” he said.

ASL, for instance, allows a person to communicate two concepts at the same time.

Dale said that anytime a community is defined by its form of communication, a culture forms. He said that includes deaf people.

“It’s a window to another culture,” he said of ASL and the deaf community.

“There is a part of the world we are just clueless about,” said ASL student Katie McVey, who was surprised her freshman year when ASL was not offered.

Even as an elective, McVey’s interest in MU’s ASL course reflects a national trend. According to the Modern Language Association’s 2003 study, enrollment in ASL classes in the United States has increased 432 percent since 1998.

The growing use

There is a practical element to learning ASL, as well. Logan emphasized the professional importance of ASL in careers such as social work, psychology, education, law and all health-related professions.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Statistics, the careers Logan described fall under either professional or service categories — those projected to be the fastest growing in the 2002-12 analysis. Medical assistants, social and human service workers and physician assistants — all jobs that can use ASL — constitute three of the four fastest-growing occupations, according to the department’s latest projections.

Senior Amy Neal, a major in communication science and disorders at MU, said she is confident ASL will help her in the future as a speech pathologist.

“So many people are involved with things requiring therapy and have trouble communicating,” she said about working with the deaf or hard-of-hearing.

Ideally, Logan said, MU will eventually add ASL, deaf-culture and deaf-education courses, creating the state’s only deaf-studies program.

The discussion about whether to expand the ASL class is scheduled to take place in the next few weeks. Logan said, ultimately, it’s up to students to be vocal about their interest in ASL.

“It’s up to them saying, ‘Hey, we want more,’ ” she said.


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