Among the language programs at Tufts, American Sign Language (ASL) is one of the smallest. Over the past three decades, however, the program has been growing in popularity. Within the Department of Child Development, through which all three ASL classes are offered, ASL I is considered a high-demand course, meaning that students must take special measures to register. This semester has been ASL’s most popular year at Tufts, with 40 students applying for the 20 spots available in the class, according to George Scarlett, the deputy chair of the Department of Child Development.
While students scramble to register for sign language classes, current policies prevent students from counting ASL toward the first half of the School of Arts and Science’s foreign language requirement, to the frustration of many students.
According to Scarlett, ASL classes have historically been oversubscribed. Enrollment dropped during the semester following the 2008 faculty vote rejecting a department proposal to allow ASL to fulfill the first three semesters of the school’s language requirement. Since then, Scarlett said, enrollments has returned to, and even exceeded, previous levels.
“The first year that we instituted it [as a high-demand course], there were about 30 students applying. And then there was some confusion following this 2008 event — there was a drop-off … but that’s no longer an issue,” Scarlett said.
ASL instruction at Tufts
ASL has always counted for the second part of the language requirement for students in the School of Arts and Sciences — which can be fulfilled with either language or culture courses — and continues to do so, Scarlett said. Tufts provides three semesters of ASL, but students must take another recognized foreign language to complete the first half of the requirement.
ASL I and II are split into language learning classes and deaf culture and linguistics classes, while ASL III is a purely language acquisition course. Terrell Clark teaches the culture and linguistics part of the courses, while Jim Lipsky, a deaf instructor who is also full-time teacher of ASL at Northeastern University, teaches the language component.
“There’s a sign-to-voice interpreter in the class for the first class [of ASL I], and from week two on, it’s just Jim and it’s ASL only,” Clark said.
Exposure to the deaf community is also an essential component of Tufts’ program. Lipsky explained that students attend events in the deaf community as a part of ASL I and are required to do 10 hours of volunteer work while taking ASL II and III.
While a plurality of students in the courses are majoring in child development, a wide variety of students take the class, according to Clark and Lipsky. They both noted that ASL’s inherent difference from spoken languages consistently draws and engages students.
“I was always intrigued by the fact that it was in a different modality,” Jenna Dargie (LA ’11), who took all three Tufts ASL courses, said. “I sort of assumed that it was a signed form of English, which is a pretty common assumption, but it’s not true.”
ASL through the years
Much of ASL’s uniqueness lies in its history, as ASL originated from French Sign Language rather than British Sign Language.
“[ASL] grew up among deaf users of the language who didn’t have access to the spoken languages of the dominant culture” rather than being based on any spoken language, Clark said.
Professor of philosophy Ray Jackendoff, who is a co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies in the philosophy department, explained that the American educational establishment until the 1960s insisted that instruction of the deaf should be conducted in English through lip reading.
“It was only in the 1960s that linguists started looking at this language and discovered that it was not only deaf and dumb pantomime — it actually had many of the familiar properties of language,” Jackendoff said.
The course was first introduced to Tufts via the Experimental College in 1976. According to Clark, who has co-taught the course since its inception, it was requested by a group of students, and continued to be popular in subsequent years. In 1984, the course was incorporated into the Department of Child Development.
The Department of Child Development 2008 submitted a proposal to the Arts and Sciences Curriculum Committee asking them to allow ASL to fulfill the first part of the foreign language requirement. The committee voted to approve the proposal and passed it along to a faculty vote. In a December 2008 meeting, the faculty rejected the proposal in 35-32 decision.
Scarlett explained that the proposal was not intended for practical reasons, as almost no students would have been affected by the change.
“For me it’s more a matter of respect to the deaf community. If you’re a deaf person, and your language is treated differently from French or German, you experience it personally … as a negative prejudice,” he said. “It’s more of a respect issue that we treat ASL as we would treat a foreign language.”
Naomi Berlove, a third-year graduate student studying psycholinguistics, agreed.
“I think that by not considering ASL a foreign language … it devalues its status, and it also perpetuates stereotypes about ASL and about deafness,” she said. “The correct way to think about it is to give it credit for being a cultural group with the rich language that it has.”
Hosea Hirata and José Antonio Mazzotti, who chair the Department of German, Russian and Asian Languages and Literatures and the Department of Romance Languages, respectively, jointly opposed the proposal at the time, citing the American — rather than foreign — nature of the language as a primary reason.
“Learning a foreign language and learning a foreign culture and learning a history and literature of a foreign country really expands your mind and prepares you to be a global citizen,” Hirata said. “Definitely there is a deaf culture. But that deaf culture is an American culture. They vote for American politicians, they watch American TV and they read American newspapers.”
This argument, however, was not convincing to students in the ASL classes.
“Growing up in America didn’t help me learn ASL any easier than anyone else,” Victoria Powell, a sophomore currently enrolled in ASL I, said.
Hirata said that another motivation behind his rejection of the proposal was ASL’s lack of a literary component.
“There’s no literature that you can study in American Sign Language. There’s no writing and reading,” he said.
Jackendoff questioned why ASL counts for the second but not the first part of the language requirement.
“There seems to be a funny discrimination here — it’s sort of saying that ASL is a second-class citizen as far as languages are concerned,” he said.
“It’s a compromise,” Hirata said. “ASL is definitely a language. But it is not a foreign language for me. That’s why we would … allow it to fulfill the second part, just like a culture option. … If we had done a yes or no choice, it would have been very difficult. But we always try to come up with some kind of compromise.”
Professor of Mathematics Monteserrat Teixidor i Bigas, a member of the Curriculum Committee at the time, noted that the 2008 faculty meeting had an unusually high turnout.
“People had some views on the topic, so there was much higher attendance than usual,” she said.
“Turnout is like turnout in any election — it depends on who shows up at the polls,” Dean of Academic Affairs for Arts and Sciences James Glaser, who was the dean of undergraduate education at the time of the vote, said.
“It lost because the language departments were opposed to it, and they got many people out to vote against it. And the Child Development Department had to get people too,” Glaser said.
Several nearby universities have more extensive ASL programs than Tufts. Northeastern University has a major in interpreter training, and Boston University has a deaf education program. Tufts students can cross-register at both schools to take classes beyond ASL III, and some have done so in the past, according to Clark.
ASL completely fulfills the foreign language requirements of both universities. Public colleges and universities, under Massachusetts law, must recognize ASL as the equivalent of a spoken language for the purposes of academic study and credit.
Professor of Biology Francie Chew, who was the chair of the Curriculum Committee at the time of the vote, said that the set time period has elapsed such that a similar proposal may once again be brought to the Committee.
“The debate, if it comes to us again, which I am sure it will, will turn on that idea [of whether ASL is foreign],” she said. “It is not entirely clear to me who will bring it this time … any responsible members of the faculty, or the deans in fact, can bring it.”
Despite the controversy, ASL remains a popular program in high demand. Students who take ASL at Tufts have used it in a wide variety of fields, according to Clark and Lipsky, who noted that past students have used sign language as doctors who cater specially for deaf patients, as psychologists working in deaf schools and as teachers working with special-needs children.
“It’s an interesting way to communicate that I hadn’t thought about before,” Alexandra Sherb, a senior who has taken three semesters of ASL offered at Tufts, said. “It’s a different type of mindset.”