More students learn to talk without saying a word

University sign language follows a national trend of increasing enrollment.

Amy Horst

If Jenny Hansen ever got laryngitis, she would be able to use her second language, but not her first.

Hansen, an elementary education junior, is one of an increasing number of University students taking American Sign Language.

Enrollment in ASL courses has increased 52 percent in the last five years, according to the College of Education and Human Development.

Currently, 847 University students take ASL courses, making it one of the most popular languages at the University.

“It’s a lot different than other languages,” said Jim Crea, a College of Liberal Arts senior. “There’s an application in your society, rather than having to go to other societies to see it applied.”

Crea said he likes the sign language course because he gets more one-on-one time with instructors than he did in French. He also hopes to use ASL to do political outreach for the Republican Party in the deaf community.

Instructors said part of the surge in enrollment could be because of increased classroom space, which allows more interested students to take sign language.

Diane Holte, an ASL coordinator and instructor, said many students do not get what they expect when they take sign language courses.

“Many thought ASL was probably easy, and that they could just learn the vocabulary,” Holte said through an interpreter. “But ASL is challenging and they enjoy learning it.”

Holte, who is deaf, said students often think ASL is English translated into gestures, but it has just as many grammar and syntax rules as other languages. Part of that grammar includes facial expressions and body language.

According to a study released last fall, the national rate of students studying ASL increased by 433 percent over the last four years. This is largely because many institutions are starting to offer the language, said William Newell, secretary of the American Sign Language Teachers Association.

The increasing number of students could cause changes to the way ASL is taught at the University.

Beginning next week, the sign language program will test computer software that allows students to take tests on computers through a webcam.

In the past, students have taken tests in front of a video camera that their instructors had to check out from the University.

Using this method, it sometimes takes six weeks for students to get feedback on their performance, and other problems can result.

“One problem is the management of video tapes,” said Susan Rose, educational psychology department associate professor. “They erase, they break, and they get shuffled around and lost.”

In addition to speeding up the grading process, the computer program would save students’ performances to a Web site so they can view their past exams.

“The advancements in software are allowing us to do things we couldn’t have done two years ago,” said Charles Miller, a University doctoral student who is designing and developing the program.

Miller is optimistic about the program’s future.

“It was great to see the instructors smile when they first signed something into the camera (at the software’s demonstrations),” Miller said.