Thinking of taking up a foreign language? Or maybe you've always wanted to refresh your high school Spanish or French? Why not try sign language instead?
A recent article in USA Today reports that American Sign Language (ASL) is now the fourth most studied foreign language in the United States. Enrollment in college ASL classes is up 16 percent over the last three years, according to a survey by the Modern Language Association. Spanish and French are in the lead, with German beating ASL by just 0.3 percent
Although some in the deaf and hard of hearing communities may take issue with the term "foreign" when referring to ASL (as the language does not come from any foreign country), it is certainly a language in its own right. ASL is not simply a translation of English into a gestural language. ASL has a specific syntax, with regional variations and slang. And, like other languages, ASL evolves with time especially to incorporate signs for new technologies.
It makes sense that languages that are seen to be the most useful, especially in the job market, would be the most commonly studied. In the United States, about 12 percent of the population speaks Spanish, and it is the most common foreign language spoken here. It stands to reason that a background in Spanish would be useful. The language classes with the highest increase in enrollment is Arabic, up 46 Percent. Again, this makes sense given the importance of the Middle East in today's global and political climates. So why ASL?
ASL is claimed by many to be the fourth most common language used in the United States, although Gallaudet University, a liberal arts college for the deaf, is unable to verify this claim. It seems unlikely that many are choosing to study ASL with the goal of becoming a sign language interpreter, although this is certainly an in-demand position. Other growing professions, however, including Special Education Teacher and Speech and Language Pathologist, incorporate the use of sign language into their work. In fact, sign language has been shown to be a helpful method of communication for special needs children who may have trouble speaking, including those with autism, cerebral palsy and Down's syndrome. In addition, it is becoming quite popular to teach hearing babies to sign, as they are able to use gestures to communicate before they can form words.
In my house, signing is a part of every day life. I began signing with my son when he was just a baby, though he didn't pick up much. He wasn't speaking either, and when he was diagnosed with autism, I redoubled my efforts, studying ASL and become a sign language instructor for children. My daughter, born just before my son's diagnosis, has been around sign language since she was born. Her first sign was at 8 months. She is now 19 months old and speaks and signs more than 100 words. She is able to communicate her needs even when she cannot clearly articulate a word. And my son now has a few signs that allow him to communicate basic needs like "water," "more" and "all done." But since he cannot speak, those signs are invaluable.