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Wednesday, July 17, 2019
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Sign Language Course a Hands-Down Hit with Students

It was a party, but you’d never know by listening to it.

All anyone could hear in the Bill Bordy Theater last Thursday evening were the occasional closing of doors and the frequent spasms of laughter as students in Emerson’s American Sign Language classes socialized with their hands and faces during the “Silent Night” ASL Reception.

“Walking in, it was silent,” said Jamie Carty ’17, a Stage Production and Management major who is taking ASL 4. “It was a bit strange, but once we got in [and started signing] it wasn’t weird at all.”

Carty is one of the 115 Emerson students taking an American Sign Language course this semester, and one of dozens who attended the reception. At big round tables throughout the Bordy Theater, clusters of students carried out conversations using just their faces, arms, and hands. Some gesticulated wildly to a crowd, drawing bursts of laughter. Others were deep in a tête-à-tête, staring intently at each others’ whirring hands.

As an ASL “veteran,” Carty was one of the students trying to steer conversation with beginners such as Veronica Reyes ’19, a first-year ASL student who said she mostly was hanging back and following along.

This is the first year the ASL classes have held an end-of-the-year reception for students. The rule for Silent Night was the same as it is in all the classes, even ASL 1: No speaking. Emerson’s ASL program is almost completely immersive from day one.

“During class, it’s very rude for people to talk in front of a deaf person,” said Nancy Vincent, a senior affiliated faculty member in Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD), who, like all ASL instructors at Emerson, is deaf. “I explain the first day of class, turn off your voices at the door,” she said through a phone interpreter.

Reyes, as a CSD undergraduate, is required to take ASL 1. But nearly half of CSD majors go on to take higher levels of the language, said Associate Professor and Undergraduate Director Amit Bajaj.

American Sign Language is important to the program in a number of ways, Bajaj said. First, it’s useful for audiology students who work with deaf and hard of hearing patients, as well as for speech language pathology students working with children who are nonverbal for reasons other than deafness, he said.

And for some undergraduate students, an interest in ASL is what made them apply to the CSD program in the first place. After all, it’s not common for a high school student to think about audiology and speech language pathology as career options, Bajaj said.

“It is also an important component in a different way, in that these courses are part of our outreach to the rest of the College, in the sense that they’re wildly popular with non-CSD students,” he said.

More than half of the students in ASL classes are from majors outside CSD.

There are a number of different sign languages around the world, all with different grammars and syntaxes; the only country to share a sign language with the U.S. is Canada, Vincent said.

It’s a very complex language to teach and learn, she said.

“People think ASL’s a fun language to learn—you speak with your hands and it’s easy—and it’s not,” Vincent said. “One word can change the whole grammatical expression if it’s signed the wrong way.”

It also relies on facial expression much more than spoken languages do, and the wrong expression, or the absence of one, can alter or color the meaning of a sentence.

Typically, when students first begin learning ASL, they feel awkward intentionally making a face. Vincent said she needs to work with them to make them more comfortable with it, because deaf people need to see that active emoting.

“It’s really interesting, for people [who] are majoring in theater, they have a tendency to pick it up much quicker, and I think it’s the body movement, expressions, all of that—it’s very powerful and works its way into the language,” Vincent said.

That’s one of the things Acting major Charlie Carr ’18 really loves about ASL.

Carr, who said she is starting to become interested in being an interpreter and is hoping to get into deaf theater, said it was difficult to translate words in her brain into movement in her hands, but that she’s now able to have a “pretty basic conversation” with a deaf person.

In fact, she already has. At her job at a spa a week or so ago, a woman who was deaf came in, and she was able to communicate enough to get the customer what she needed.

“When I told her I was learning Sign Language her face just lit up so much,” Carr said. “That extra ‘I’m going to accommodate you’ instead of ‘You’re going to accommodate me’ just made her really happy and made me really happy.”

As a Writing, Literature and Publishing major, Carl Lavigne ’17 said he processes information by writing things down, so learning to communicate with his hands and face has been a challenge. He said he’s found it helpful to film himself signing sentences and “almost having conversations with myself.”

A couple of Lavigne’s friends had taken ASL in previous semesters and when they’d sign around him, he thought it was the “coolest thing.” But what really prompted him to learn the language himself is his writing.

He said he wanted to incorporate characters who were deaf into his stories, and he wanted to do it right.

Currently, Lavigne’s working on a story with a deaf character, but he’s finding it tricky to translate ASL to English on the page.

“If you were to literally translate a lot of signs, it wouldn’t sound right in English, because it’s a different kind of grammar,” he said.

Lavigne said because communication is at the heart of everything Emerson does, he would love to see the ASL program expanded, or possibly even made mandatory for all undergraduate students.

“I think ASL is such a fantastic language, and we have such great teachers,” he said. “I would love to see everyone take it.”