Students debate language credit

GW students said they are pushing GW to follow the lead of most other D.C. universities and accept American Sign Language as a foreign language. Columbian School of Arts and Sciences students said ASL courses should count toward the school’s foreign language and culture requirements.

I’m taking ASL because I believe it’s a good life skill, junior Caitlin Dourmashkin said. I’m learning about grammar and culture, but I still can’t receive foreign language credit, so I’m forced to take Italian just to meet a requirement.

CSAS students must take at least six credits in a foreign language or culture to fulfill core requirements.

Dourmashkin said she petitioned CSAS to count her ASL classes for foreign language credit and was denied. Two other students in her class were also denied after petitioning for foreign language credit, she said.

More than 100 universities around the nation, including American, Catholic, Georgetown and George Mason universities, accept ASL as a foreign language, according to a list compiled by Sherman Wilcox, an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of New Mexico. Wilcox is a leading expert on the movement to make ASL an accepted foreign language for CSAS, said professors within the school have mixed opinions about changing the University’s policy.

Based on informal conversation, I know that there are various opinions among the faculty, some who feel very strongly that ASL is a foreign language, Moreland said. Others who feel that it is not, and others who feel that they do not know enough about the topic to make an informed decision.

GW offers two sign language courses through the Special Education Department.

Until CSAS faculty members designate ASL as a foreign language, students will be unable to count it for foreign language credit toward the general curriculum requirements, Moreland said.

No faculty member asked to review the University’s policy for accepting ASL as a foreign language when the new CSAS general curriculum was designed and approved this past year, Moreland said.

The fact that no one has chosen, to my knowledge, to bring the issue of ASL to the floor, even when debating the new curriculum, suggests that there is no powerful interest on the part of the faculty in adding ASL to the foreign language category, she said.

Geralyn Schulz, chair of the Speech and Hearing Department and a certified speech language pathologist, said she feels strongly that ASL should be considered a foreign language.

ASL gives you access to a whole other population and culture, Schulz said. You can communicate and gain access to the majority of the deaf population.

Schulz, who joined the GW faculty in August, said she would have raised the issue during last year’s faculty discussion of the requirements if he had been present.

Many people wrongly assume that ASL is fundamentally different than spoken language, Wilcox said.

Students have no idea that deaf people have their own culture, he said. They don’t realize that the language issues are the same as those faced by indigenous people, that the bilingual education issues are the same as those that the country as a whole struggles with.

Wilcox said offering credit for ASL sparks more interest in other languages.

I see students who take ASL become interested in other foreign languages, he said. They want to learn more about language, they become interested in cultures. They see things that have been in their environment all along – multilingualism, diversity, language as power – but which they were oblivious to.

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