Wary of Taking Spanish or French? Raise Your Hands

Times Staff Writer

Enrollments have soared in American Sign Language classes at colleges around the country, but many of the students aren’t planning to become sign language interpreters or teachers for the deaf.

Instead, they are looking for a way to avoid taking Spanish, French or another spoken language.

“I thought, ‘Cool, you can talk with your hands,’ ” said Marisol Arzate, a student at Pierce College in Woodland Hills.

Arzate, 20, who earns A’s and Bs in community college, had struggled in her high school Spanish classes despite learning the basics from her Mexican-born parents. When she registered at Pierce for her first semester of American Sign Language, Arzate said her hunch was, “This should be easy. No big deal.”


These days Arzate warns that ASL actually is tough to master, and so do many others with normal hearing who have studied the language. Still, it is attracting lots of students who prefer to learn visually and who attend, or plan to enroll at, schools that approve ASL for meeting language requirements.

So many students have discovered ASL in recent years that it recorded the fastest enrollment growth rate of any “foreign language” offered on U.S. college campuses, according to the Modern Language Assn. The association says ASL has become the fifth most widely studied foreign language in college, trailing only Spanish, French, German and Italian.

Yet academic leaders remain divided on the educational merits. Although the list of colleges approving ASL for foreign-language entrance or graduation requirements keeps growing, some prominent schools, including such California campuses as USC and Pomona College, are holdouts. They contend that ASL -- unlike, say, French -- doesn’t open a window into another country’s culture.

That debate hasn’t dampened students’ enthusiasm. Among those pushing up enrollment are ambitious high school students who flock to community colleges for ASL classes because they aren’t offered at their high schools. Many want a different way to earn language credits for their college applications.

“Spoken language really is not my big strong suit,” said Sterling Hirsh, a 15-year-old sophomore at North Hollywood High School’s highly gifted magnet program who studies ASL at Glendale Community College.

Hirsh, whose rigorous high school schedule includes three Advanced Placement courses and who is most interested in computers, math and physics, added, “I knew it would be a lot of fun to learn, because it’s a lot more involved than just reading from a book, learning vocabulary and stuff like that.... It’s more physical.”

He credits his success in ASL partly to his teacher, Lisa Chahayed, an instructor at Glendale and Pierce. Chahayed, 41, who has been deaf since birth, runs a fast-paced class, with animated give-and-take, communicated through gestures and signs.

The quiet of the classroom -- there is no speaking -- is shattered every few minutes by the laughter she draws from her students with lighthearted role-playing.


“Making it fun is my goal,” Chahayed said in an e-mail. “I can tell who understands me by seeing which students laugh and which don’t.”

Many of her students had no ties to the deaf community before studying ASL and have no specific plans to use the language professionally. Still, Chahayed is optimistic that these students will leave class with “a brand new outlook on life and that they appreciate us for who we are and how much we go through.”

The origins of American Sign Language are traced at least to the late 1600s, when a type of sign language was used by the deaf community on Martha’s Vineyard, off the Massachusetts coast. The language moved closer to its current form in the early 1800s when a Protestant minister -- Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, for whom Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., is named -- helped establish a Connecticut school for the deaf.

Today, it generally is estimated that up to 500,000 people use ASL as their primary language.


Academics have widely recognized ASL as a full-fledged language with a complex grammar. It relies on arm and hand movements as well as body posture and facial expressions. Although deaf people sometimes sprinkle English into their sign language conversations by finger-spelling words, ASL has its own distinct vocabulary. One dictionary, compiled by educator Martin Sternberg, lists more than 7,000 entries.

ASL “is not English on the hands,” said Carol Neidle, a linguist at Boston University.

What’s more, ASL is far different from, say, Mexican, Japanese or even British Sign Language. Deaf people from different countries often struggle to communicate, much the way speakers of other languages do.

Linguists overwhelmingly dismiss the notion that ASL is easy to learn, even though it lacks a written literature and comes more quickly to some students than spoken languages.


Robert J. Blake, director of the UC Consortium for Language Learning and Teaching, said ASL students enjoyed the same benefits as those learning foreign languages: “You learn to be able to think in new ways and refer to things in new ways.”

Largely for those reasons and because of advocacy by deaf activists, leading universities -- including Stanford, Yale, UC Berkeley and UCLA -- have decided since the early 1990s to allow ASL to fulfill foreign-language requirements.

Sherman Wilcox, chairman of University of New Mexico’s linguistics department, estimates that more than 150 U.S. campuses have accepted ASL as a foreign language.

Yet some of the nation’s top schools, including Harvard and Princeton, have resisted. USC’s main undergraduate college rejected ASL as a foreign language when the school last reviewed the issue about five years ago.


Boston University, which rejected ASL as a foreign language in 1994, is at the center of the debate. Its College of Arts and Sciences is reviewing the matter.

Jeffrey Henderson, Boston University’s dean of arts and sciences, said his college’s current 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.”

The Modern Language Assn.'s figures for 2002, the most recent year it has tracked, show that enrollment in college ASL classes reached 60,781, with nearly 30% of those students in California.

The association said the number of ASL students was up 432% from four years earlier but acknowledged that the increase probably was inflated somewhat by survey techniques. Still, no other language came close to that kind of growth. Arabic, the second-biggest gainer, posted a 92.5% rise. Some deaf studies experts say ASL programs are being added so quickly that qualified teachers are in short supply.


In California, a separate analysis found that 28,504 students took ASL classes in the state’s community colleges last year. That was up 25% from five years before and more than double the level of a decade earlier.

Elenna Turner, college counselor at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, said that she has steered students to community college courses in ASL to satisfy second-language entrance requirements at UC and Cal State campuses.

“I used to feel sorry for kids who struggled with Spanish” or other spoken languages, she said. “That’s not their only option anymore.”

Yet by no means is all of the enrollment surge the result of students looking for an alternative. There is demand for ASL teachers and interpreters, and the language is useful in counseling and customer service fields.


Many students became intrigued by watching sign language interpreters at church services. Some want to communicate better with deaf relatives or friends. Others are fascinated by the language’s physical expressiveness.

Sign language gained widespread attention in popular culture in the 1980s with the theater and film versions of “Children of a Lesser God,” a love story between a speech teacher and a deaf woman. Passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990 further encouraged use of the language.

One of the campuses that pioneered the teaching of ASL was Cal State Northridge, which has one of the nation’s few deaf studies programs and is home to the National Center on Deafness.

Northridge is where Kristin Carr, 21, a Glendale Community College student studying ASL, eventually hopes to transfer to earn a bachelor’s degree in deaf studies. Carr, who has full hearing, started taking sign language in high school, partly out of a longtime interest but also because “I tried Spanish, and it didn’t work out too well.”


She was captivated by the idea of helping deaf people and becoming an interpreter. In her part-time job at Starbucks, she uses her skills to take orders from deaf customers.

That, in turn, has kindled enthusiasm for ASL among her co-workers. “They say, ‘Teach me, teach me!’ ” Carr said.