U-Wire: UPenn teaches ASL class

(U-WIRE) PHILADELPHIA – The students watch attentively as their professor teaches them a foreign language. New words are learned and questions are asked.

But not a word is spoken.

This is no ordinary class. This is the American Sign Language class, where speaking is strictly prohibited.

From the first day of class, students are instructed to remain silent for the entire 90-minute session. For many, the silence is uncomfortable at first, but they quickly become accustomed to the new classroom environment.

“At first, it’s a little awkward and a little nerve racking,” University of Pennsylvania senior Kristen Buppert said. “But later, it’s nice.”

The ASL program began six years ago at the University of Pennsylvania. Since then, it has increased dramatically in popularity. The class fills up so quickly each semester that students often find themselves closed out time and time again.

Students noted a combination of the unique visual communication and the effective teaching styles of the five ASL professors, all of whom are deaf.

For years, the ASL courses were considered linguistics courses and could not be counted toward Penn’s language requirement. Administrators argued that since the language was not technically foreign, it should not qualify.

“People don’t realize that it does have a different grammar structure and a different syntax,” Kelberg said. “I think it’s actually a little harder” than Spanish and French, she added.

Last fall, after much consideration and persuasion by ASL professors, administrators made the decision to allow ASL to qualify as a foreign language.

Students stressed that sign language is not just a series of hand gestures, nor is it a direct translation of its spoken counterpart.

“It’s not just English changed into using your hands,” said Rebecca Weinberger, a junior at Swarthmore College taking the ASL level-four course at Penn. “It uses the space in front of you and behind you. You use everything. It’s not just your hands, it’s your body, your facial expressions.”

While there are currently four levels of ASL classes, when the program was first getting off the ground, only levels one and two were offered. Those who wished to take higher levels were referred to the Community College of Philadelphia.

But turning students away was unacceptable to Hennessey. In response, she traveled to Tennessee to participate in a program that taught her how to teach the language and culture at an advanced level.

Upon her return, Penn added level three and four classes to the ASL roster.

“I want students to understand that … people can go out and learn (sign language) the same as French and Spanish and that signing is fun,” Hennessey said.

Many find themselves using their knowledge of sign language in everyday situations. Buppert recalls one night at a bar, watching three men sign to each other.

“I got up and walked over and said hi,” she said, remembering the confused stares and the friendly conversation in sign language that followed.

After learning the language and having everyday experiences like that of Buppert, ASL students realize that the language is more useful and more unusual than they had ever imagined, and they work hard at dispelling misconceptions of the language.

“Sign is really a language,” Weinberger said. “It’s not acting, it’s not mime, it’s not fake. It’s a true language, and it’s really beautiful.”

-Stephanie Eisenstat
Daily Pennsylvanian (U. Pennsylvania)

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