The Columbian School of Arts and Sciences requires students take six credit hours of a foreign language or courses examining a foreign culture. But the CSAS general curriculum requirement, the basis of GW’s liberal arts education, does not allow American Sign Language to count as the foreign language component. This policy ignores millions of deaf Americans, their role in society and their unique form of communication.
ASL is a language like any other. It has its own symbolic structures that represent objects, thoughts, feelings and ideas. While these structures are formed with hands and not written down on paper or spoken audibly, the function they serve to promote communication is no different than audible languages. Conversations in ASL are no less rich with meaning and emotion than those spoken in any language abroad. Audible nuances are replaced with subtle movements to convey anger, sadness, joy or fear.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have accepted ASL as the standard for communication for the deaf. But that communication is only possible if more hearing people know ASL and can use it to converse with deaf co-workers and friends. The only way to accomplish this goal is to educate more hearing people in ASL. Granting students general requirement credit for sign language classes gives the hearing community an incentive to learn about the unique language of their deaf peers and will increase the interaction between the two groups.
More than 100 colleges and universities across the country consider sign language a foreign language for curriculum purposes. GW should not ignore this trend simply because, according to CSAS Associate Dean Kim Moreland, a large portion of the faculty is ignorant of the situation. Professors should wake up and reward students who want to use sign language to accomplish one of the most important goals of foreign language education – using language to bridge the gap between communities.