One in ten Americans lives with a form of diminished hearing – that’s 30 million people with some degree of deafness. With that number in mind, it’s not difficult to see the benefits of making American Sign Language (ASL) more accessible to everyone. ASL is currently the third most widely used language in the United States, following spoken English and Spanish. However, ASL did not become nearly this ubiquitous until very recently. In the past 18 years, enrollment in college-level ASL courses has grown more than twenty-fold, from only about 4000 students in 1995 to 90,000 today (NY Times).
It’s hard to believe that just two decades ago, only a few colleges even offered ASL. But today, students in the fields of education, linguistics, and health services are eager to take sign language as a class. For many of these students, it may be the first time their college is even offering such a course. Sure enough, ASL has made its way to become the nation’s fourth most popular college language class, nearly overtaking German, which currently holds third place. The causes and effects of this surge in popularity may shed some light on the evolving status of deaf culture in America.
How did ASL Become So Popular?
Several colleges began to add ASL to their list of offered courses following the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which required that staff of hospitals and related agencies be able to communicate with deaf individuals effectively. In 2009, over 91,000 students enrolled in an ASL course in 730 colleges and universities across the country (Chicago Tribune). Not only have many colleges counted completion of an ASL course as a fulfillment of their foreign language requirements; many states have finally recognized American Sign Language as an official language of its own.
Who enrolls in ASL Courses?
Many of those who study ASL are deaf or hard of hearing themselves or have family or friends who are. However, many people today decide to take ASL for its application to their career track as well. It has become increasingly common for employers to seek workers who can sign in order to demonstrate their compliance with the ADA by employing those who are able to clearly communicate with deaf individuals. The demand for certified ASL interpreters is on the rise; interpreters can make from $40 to $60 an hour solely based on their knowledge of sign language (NY Times).
Additionally, college students who prefer visual to auditory learning may have trouble studying spoken foreign languages and choose to take ASL instead of the more traditional options like Spanish, French, and German. Finally, many students who engage in volunteer work and outreach programs may choose to study ASL in order to better communicate with the communities they serve. Since communication is a necessary tool in all areas of life, there are few situations where an understanding of sign language could not be beneficial.
Impact on society and culture
Even in spoken languages, as we convey information from our own minds to others’, only seven percent of meaning comes from the words themselves. Thirty-eight percent of the meaning comes from the inflection and tone of our voice, while the remaining fifty-five percent comes from body language (Lifeprint). Similarly, as any ASL-user can tell you, sign language is more than just hand gestures. In fact, body language and movement play even bigger roles when communicating through sign language since the inflection and tone of one’s voice is not a factor. Therefore, many individuals study ASL even if they can hear and speak in order to understand how body language and movement affects the subconscious.
By improving nonverbal communication skills and observing one another’s body language, people can understand each other and be better understood. College students who learn ASL can utilize what they learn regardless of which career field they enter, whether it be psychology, politics, or marketing.
The addition of ASL as a course in educational institutions across the nation is long overdue. By offering courses in a language that is used by communities across America, universities are not only improving communication between individuals, but also increasing respect for the language and its culture. While languages around the world are in danger of dying off, ASL, in all its unique vibrancy, is doing quite the opposite—its usage is growing everyday.