May 16, 2013
By Ofer Tirosh
While it’s common for students to take foreign language classes in high school and college (and in some cases required), usually the languages are Spanish, French, German or something along those lines. But in recent years, American Sign Language has increased in popularity among university students. From 2006 to 2009 the popularity of American Sign Language increased by 16% and has continued to increase since then.
Language professors accredit the increase to the growing acceptance of colleges recognizing American Sign Language as a way to fulfill college language requirements. Some universities and colleges offer classes in American Sign Language but do not offer credit for them, whereas others offer elective or language credit for the classes.
“This is a vulnerable time for language study. But student interest remains strong,” stated Rosemary Feal, the executive director of the Modern Language Association.
The increase in American Sign Language study coincided with an increase in undergraduate foreign language study. While undergraduate language study increased, the study of foreign language in graduate programs decreased.
Other languages with vast increases along with American Sign Language are Arabic, Korean and Chinese. For years there has been controversy and debate as to whether or not American Sign Language is a real language, but now some universities even offer it as a major or minor.
“Some students take it because when they took Spanish or French in high school, it was horrific and they think this will be better,” said Amy Ruth McGraw, a language professor at the University of Iowa. “And if their problem was auditory, or the accent, this might be better. But if it was memorizing vocabulary and grammar, this isn’t going to be any better.”
Only about half of colleges and universities in the United States require languages classes for graduation, a decrease from previous years.
“A.S.L. is our second-largest language. It gets almost 10 percent of our undergraduates, almost equal to Spanish,” said Ted Supalla, director at University of Rochester’s A.S.L. program.
Some contribute the increased interest in American Sign Language to the job market. Even in a down economy the desire for sign language interpreters remains strong.
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