Saturday, October 16, 2010

UCLA student newspaper questions why the university doesn't offer American Sign Language

From The Daily Bruin at UCLA:

Zapotec. Azeri. Hittite. Yoruba. Old Norse. Quechua. These are all languages you can learn this quarter at UCLA.

Don’t worry if you do not recognize any of these names; Microsoft Word doesn’t know most of them either. Yet the list of more than 50 languages taught at UCLA has a glaring omission in that American Sign Language is not on it.

The UCLA humanities division, which houses almost all of these languages, should begin instruction in sign language. UCLA already indirectly recognizes it as a language. There would be enough demand and it would cost little to start up.

There is some debate on whether ASL is a language of its own or whether it is just a form of English. But according to Timothy Stowell, dean of the humanities division and a linguist by profession, “If you know anything about language, (ASL) is a language.”

UCLA seems to have indirectly decided it is a separate language.

It accepts ASL to meet foreign language requirements for freshman applicants, it allows students to take an ASL exam to test out of the foreign language requirement for graduation, it has graduate students researching the language, and the linguistics department is even teaching a course on the structure of sign language this coming summer, academic counselor Kyle McJunkin said in a statement.

So why doesn’t UCLA offer ASL?

“Because no one has lobbied us for it,” Stowell said.

Most new language courses are a result of students asking for a particular language to be taught. The humanities division then assesses the demand and finds an instructor. That is how Hindi-Urdu (the official languages of India and Pakistan, respectively) was started, and it has been a successful program.

Between 500,000 and 2 million people know ASL in the United States. All things considered, I would assume there is more demand for it than many of the currently taught languages. A lack of requests for the language should not be construed as a lack of interest.

Derrick Coleman, junior running back of the UCLA football team, has been wearing hearing aids for as long as he can remember. He does not know ASL but would like to learn it.

“I was a little disappointed because we’re UCLA, and we should be having that,” Coleman said.

For him, the main issue is not being able to communicate with other hearing-impaired people who only communicate via signing.

He said he is looking for a place near his home or near Westwood that teaches it, but I am sure his football practice schedule would make it difficult to learn a language that is not a part of his course load.

Lindsay Rowe, a senior on the track team, was also disappointed to learn that UCLA does not teach the language. She has decided that she wants to be an ASL translator or teacher, which is difficult because she cannot learn the language here. She has decided she will learn it after graduating.

Interest in taking ASL may come from hearing-impaired students and those with friends or family who use sign language.

Interest also comes from students pursuing the minor in disability studies. Even though many hearing-impaired people do not self-identify as disabled and try to avoid the label, students that study disability are often interested in learning ASL.

Demand would also come from the slew of students who took ASL at their high schools to meet foreign language requirements (and avoid taking more popular languages) and from students just interested in learning the language.

We certainly have many students that fall into each of the categories above.

Before the university commits to adding it to our list of languages, we should test demand. We can easily get one of the graduate students who is researching sign language to teach it for a quarter.

While the humanities division is more focused on keeping the languages they currently offer in the face of budget cuts, adding ASL would cost little and benefit the campus. The cost would come from developing a syllabus and moving a teaching assistant from a linguistics class to teach an ASL section.

Having a second or third level of ASL could be something we consider after we address the University of California’s Great Budget Depression, but an introduction-level course does not seem difficult to implement. If it works well and the demand is high, we should consider adding full-time faculty and possibly one day having a sign language department.

ASL is taught at many universities, community colleges and high schools nationwide. There’s no reason not to teach it at UCLA.