It's a professor's dream class. Every student sitting in the classroom on the second floor of Phillips Hall pays complete, unwavering attention to instructor Kimela Nelson. The intensity of their concentration is palpable. They aren't listening to what she is saying, though. They're looking at the gestures she makes.
Her hands weave a fluid, flickering pattern through the air, and her expressive face scrunches into emphatic lines. Students nod and laugh in response to words never uttered out loud. Other than the creaking of chairs, the rustling of papers, and the occasional cough or outburst of laughter, a dynamic quiet fills the room.
Leave your voice outside the classroom is the firm instruction given to students who sign up for the American Sign Language (ASL) classes. Silence is golden inside ASL classesand even outside. To ensure total immersion in the language and culture of the American deaf community, Nelson and her colleagues in the UI's American Sign Language Program will only sign in ASL to their students, whether they meet them in class, in the corridors of Phillips Hall, in faculty offices, or even on the street. The introductory class is the only time most students ever hear their instructor's voice.
It's a real shock if I hear Kimela speaking to someone, says Alice Hayner, a communications and Spanish senior from West Des Moines. Students admit it was scary to try to communicate without words from day one. But, like any new language, the best way to learn ASL is to jump right in and start using it. And ASL is a foreign language, one that meets the General Education foreign language requirement at the UI. It's not a derivative or simplified form of English. It's a distinct, natural language with rules of grammar and usage as different from English as German or Japanese. Coming from within their community, ASL reflects and unifies American deaf people. It also poses the extra challenge of learning in a new modevisual and gestural, rather than spoken.
The roots of ASL can be traced back to the early 19th centuryand to France. In his efforts to develop better communication for deaf people in the U.S., in 1815 a Congregational minister named Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet visited a renowned school for the deaf in France. Gallaudet returned to the United States with Laurent Clerc, a deaf teacher, and they set up the nation's first school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. Although they have been modified since then, many ASL signs are derived from French Sign Language.
Despite being an integral part of deaf culture, for many years ASL was not widely accepted by hearing educators. Instead, for years, deaf children struggled to learn speech and lipreading. The reasoning was that deaf people should be integrated into the hearing world and ASL would impair their ability to read and understand English. Many within the deaf community now condemn this approach as paternalistic and a suppression of their culture. Yet, even now, many educators teach deaf children simplified sign systems that draw heavily upon the words, grammar, and syntax of English.
Formally recognized as a natural language in the 1960s, ASL only really began to be appreciated in the '70s and '80s. It has been taught widely across America, in schools, community colleges, and universities since the 1990s. The UI began teaching ASL in the fall of 1994 and now also offers upper-level classes in History of the American Deaf Community and Topics in Deaf Studies.
Classes are always over-subscribedlast year's summer course filled in a week. Deaf, hearing, and hard-of-hearing students all sign up. Some are speech pathology, education, or medicine majors, others want to learn ASL to communicate better with deaf family members or friends, and many take the class to meet foreign language requirements for graduation.
I just want to be able to talk to everyone, says Eric Harlan, a pre-med/exercise science sophomore from Clive. Being able to communicate with everyone will also help my career in medicine. And, ASL is interesting and fun.
Other students agree that ASL is cool, a constant source of fascination to friends and roommates who are eager to try their own hands at signing. The challenge of learning to speak another language and understand another culture also appeals. I already know English and I'm learning Spanish, so I wanted to be able to communicate in another language, explains Hayner. Back to Top
In addition to the classroom sessions, students spend hours in the Language Media Center, studying ASL videos and CD-ROMs on various aspects of deaf culture. Pronunciation in ASL is not verbal but physical. Students find it difficult to adapt to expressing themselves with the facial and body gestures that are an integral part of the language. The sign for near entails pointing with a finger and simultaneously twisting your mouth down at one side. Far requires the mouth to be open.
"Students hate learning the facial grammar. They feel really self-conscious, says Nelson.
Sitting in the lounge in the basement of Phillips Hall, four students chat after class. Automatically and subconsciously, their hands glide and twist in a balletic accompaniment to their spoken words. Sometimes, they all admit, they find themselves thinking in ASL. It's fascinating, says Valarie Lovaglia, a social work junior from Iowa City. It's not a pantomime; it's a language.
And it has its own unique rewards. When you are conversing in ASL, you have to focus intently on the other person to process every snippet of information and pick up every nuance of meaning. Now, even when she has a spoken conversation, Lovaglia is much more aware of and receptive to the facial expressions that may give lie to the other person's words. It's broadened my vision, she says.
In the same way that a torrent of fluent French or Italian can sound romantic to someone who doesn't understand the language, so it's fascinating for a non-ASL speaker to watch this graceful form of communication in action. Questions, answers, and remarks fly silently across the classroom. Nelson makes the sign for a new word, and 22 pairs of hands morph into the same form.
As students sit in pairs opposite each other and practice how to give directions to a place, they point, tap, or curl their fingers, make fists, and pluck at clothing. They shake or nod their heads and raise or lower their eyebrows to get their meaning across.
In the expert hands of a native signer like UI instructor Brenda Falgier, who is profoundly deaf and grew up using ASL at home, the language's unique expressiveness becomes even more apparent. As Falgier's hands fly in rapid, quickfire movements, even an experienced interpreter like Nelson occasionally has difficulty keeping up.
No wonder students often feel lost among the numerous head, body, arm, hand, and facial movements that add subtle distinctions and shades of meaning to the language. Take classifiers, for instance. Multi-purpose, they can serve as nouns, verbs, adverbs, and prepositions, depending on the context in which they're used. They're a constant source of confusion for students, along with verbs and nouns that often have the same hand shape but are distinguished by slightly different movements.
Students are always getting mixed up with the signs for the noun 'car' and the verb 'drive,' signs Falgier. They'll say they want to 'buy a drive.' Even though they know the difference in theory, they still get it wrong in practice. In ASL, a sign can have more than one meaning depending on slight changes of hand parameters. In many cases, there's no English word for a sign. If students just memorize all the signs with English words, their communication would be very stilted. You have to internalize ASLpractice enough to get to the point where you can make the sign to match each particular instance. Then the language flows.
In the interests of better communication with hearing people, many deaf people often revert to Pidgin Sign Englisha combination of ASL and simpler, easier-to-understand forms and grammatical structures that lean more towards English. In the deaf community, though, they're proud to use pure ASL.
"For years, American Sign Language had to be kept hidden, so we're glad to see such growing interest in it, signs Falgier. We have such a strong pride in our languagethat's why we emphasize it's called American Sign Language, not just 'sign language.'