American Sign Language: An Overlooked Foreign Language Option in College

Learning to speak French, Spanish, Italian, or German sounds fascinating. There’s the possibility of being able to use the acquired language in far off destinations. Learning to speak Mandarin Chinese seems logical in a business sense, as the United States fights to compete economically with China. However, there’s a language often overlooked when deciding what foreign language to study in college: sign language.

More colleges are accepting sign language as a foreign language requirement now. Currently, I am taking courses in the second level of American Sign Language (ASL) to fulfill my foreign language requirement in the College of Media at the University of Illinois. Many of my friends at school are not learning ASL, but they often ask me questions about what it’s like to learn the language. There are a few ideas to keep in mind when deciding to pursue ASL as a foreign language.

Don’t assume taking American Sign Language will be an easy “A” since “American” is in the name. This doesn’t mean that a beginner in ASL will automatically be able to understand it just because they speak English.

There is also a difference between ASL and Signed English. ASL is a language with its own grammar, syntax, and community. It is separate from spoken English. Signed English is a variation of spoken English. It follows the grammar and syntax structures of English, which differs from ASL. Often, Signed English is used to help ASL users to learn English after learning ASL as their primary language. Signed English is not a separate language.

ASL is not similar to English, and it is not a universal language. Sign language varies around the word, depending on location and region. There are different sign languages in different countries. Just because you learn ASL doesn’t mean you’d be able to understand sign language in Germany. In fact, ASL is closest to French Sign Language.

Sign language is not pantomime or gestures. It is a unique language with its own structure. The way a sentence is structured in ASL differs greatly from how a sentence is structured in English. When first learning the language, it takes adjustment if your primary language is English. Adopt the mentality that ASL is a language of its own. Just as if you were learning French of Spanish, you have to learn the way verbs and nouns are arranged and formatted in a sentence.

Continuing on the mentality aspect of the language, try to remove yourself from the hearing world, which can differ from the Deaf world. There are debates over cochlear implants and hearing aids. There is struggle with having mainstream movies close captioned in movie theaters. Remember that you are learning about a culture, the Deaf culture. There are values and traditions celebrated by its members. Remove yourself from the comfort of your hearing world and explore this new culture.

Not only is learning ASL fulfilling in itself, but it is beneficial when searching for jobs. While it is rigorous to become a certified sign language interpreter, listing that you have experience with ASL on a resume sets you apart from the crowd. Many employers look for candidates who are familiar with ASL, but it can be rare to come by. Just this last summer, an interviewer told me I was the first candidate to mention knowing ASL when applying for a park district job. This skill will set you apart from the rest, especially in a job that involves community interaction and customer service. Being able to communicate with diverse patients in the medical field or assisting a customer at a restaurant will make you unique to an employer.

Learning a foreign language at college is a rewarding experience. Part of learning a new language is stepping into unfamiliar territory to enrich yourself. Sign language is just another avenue to make that goal possible.

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Rebecca Jacobs

Rebecca Jacobs

Rebecca Jacobs is a sophomore at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a News-Editorial Journalism degree. An avid bookworm, Rebecca reads all texts Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut when she’s not busy writing for The Black Sheep on campus. Back home, she spends a vast amount of time enjoying nature with loved ones.