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North Hills Monthly

Interest in American Sign Language on the Increase

Dec 31, 2018 07:26PM ● By Clare Heekin Lynch

Learning sign language at the Western PA School for the Deaf

The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that 28 million Americans (about 10 percent of the population) have some degree of hearing loss. About 2 million of these 28 million people are classified as deaf, meaning that they can’t hear everyday sounds or speech even with a hearing aid. But only about 10 percent of these 2 million people were born deaf, while the other 90 percent became deaf later in life.

The “natural” language (a language that is learned as a first language in childhood) of around 500,000 deaf people in the U.S. is American Sign Language (ASL). It is a nonverbal language, using hands and fingers to communicate. However, not all deaf people learn ASL as their first language. Many use it as their second language and some only use a little ASL, if at all.

In general, most people in the United States have very little exposure to ASL, unless they see sign language interpreters as part of a news conference. Nonetheless, more and more people are becoming fluent in ASL as the language itself is experiencing an upswing of popularity. In fact, according to a survey from the Modern Language Association, it is the third most popular language taught in the U.S. behind Spanish and French.

There are several explanations for the increase in the language’s popularity, include fulfilling a language requirement in high schools and colleges; job opportunities, such as becoming an interpreter; and for career-driven reasons in that it expands one’s ability to interact with coworkers and clients, especially in the healthcare and elder care settings. It also allows communication with those who are not deaf.

“We (those who use spoken language) are a loud society when we verbally communicate,” said Marybeth Lauderdale, director of the Western PA School for the Deaf (WPSD). “Sign language is also a great way to be able to get your point across in a crowded restaurant or even in a quiet church!”

Lauderdale said that it’s a common misconception that ASL is a universal language.

“Sign language is different in every country, and American Sign Language (ASL) is based on French Sign Language,” she explained. “It’s also a language full of its own linguistics and grammar.” 

As in any language, words and syntax can change, so one word is not always exactly equal to one hand symbol. With ASL, context can change depending on the location of the symbol in the ‘signing space’ and the movement of the hands. The face is also involved in expressing grammar and emotion, which is why the faces of sign language users and interpreters often look so expressive, in order to clearly convey meaning, especially from a distance.

The opportunity to learn ASL is not just offered in formal levels of education, but is available to adults who enjoy studying something new. 

“Even learning something as simple as the alphabet is a great start to being able to communicate with the deaf community,” Lauderdale said.

WPSD offers four levels of classes from beginner to advanced. The classes meet for two hours every Wednesday night for eight weeks on their Edgewood campus. “Our classes go beyond just teaching sign language,” said Lauderdale. “Deaf people who use ASL see this language as not only a means of communication, but a source of cultural unity and pride, so our instructors also promote an understanding of deaf culture through interaction with deaf and hard of hearing individuals.”

More information on these classes can be found online at www.wpsd.org. The winter session begins January 9, 2019.

The Center for Hearing & Deaf Services also offers similar classes, (eight-week terms, year-round, on Wednesday evenings) in both their downtown and Greensburg locations. Businesses can also become involved through their ASL 1 at Work program, where the business picks the day, time, and starting date and the instructor goes to them. Visit www.hdscenter.org for more information.

Certificates in ASL can also be earned through programs offered at CCAC and the University of Pittsburgh.