This week, Carole talks with Emily Fermier about American Sign Language (ASL) and its increase in popularity among high school and university students. Emily has taught ASL at both the high school and university level for the past 14 years. Emily notes that in high schools and universities, the number of schools offering ASL is increasing in fact it has been a 67% increase from 1990 to 2013, in the # of students taking ASL as a foreign language. The surge in popularity as a foreign language can “be credited to… it being out there more, people seeing interpreters, people seeing Deaf people and sign language on TV, in movies, and really wanting to learn more about the language and the Deaf Community.”

“There’s something about sign language that is very public and private at the same time… it’s a secret language.” — Carole Dorn-Bell

Carole was surprised, as are many others, that American Sign Language is considered a foreign language. “It is completely separate from English and has it’s own grammar, syntax and vocabulary. It naturally developed overtime as all languages do.” Within the US, there are regional sign languages, almost like dialects with different words, phrases and grammatical quirks. As with any other language, ASL changes overtime so there are generational differences as well. Its difficulty to learn has led ASL to be classified as a “tier 3” foreign language.

Contrary to popular belief, American Sign Language isn’t just pantomime of spoken English.  It’s a very complex language. While some signs are iconic… a majority are abstract. The word order is different than spoken language. Facial expressions and body movement aren’t just context clues but are also a requirement for grammatical clarity. Despite the difficulties of mastering the language, “students who take the class really enjoy learning it. The kinesthetic nature and visual nature of the language can lend itself really well to learners to feel very successful and meaningful.”

The need to incorporate the physical gestures of signing with facial expressions, three-dimensional space and posture can be difficult to master and make students feel awkward and conspicuous at first. “You would not be alone in feeling self-conscious. It’s something we address first.”

There are many benefits to choosing to study ASL as a foreign language. ASL helps you learn yourself, your own language and your own culture. In addition, it lends itself to many careers through direct work with the Deaf community or to careers in education and medical fields that benefit from this access and knowledge.

There isn’t an initial licensure for sign language teachers which has led to a shortage in teachers because there aren’t many programs. Right now, it is important for ASL teachers to not only be fluent in AS but also be well-versed and integrated in the Deaf community and also know how to teach ASL as a foreign language so that students can understand the syntax, historical context and cultural implications as well as learning vocabulary. To provide more access, Emily has developed an online ASL program at