by Mark McGowan
Even packed with students and a professor, the Wirtz Hall classroom is quieter than a library.
Virtually every sound punctuates the stillness. The ticking of the clock. The creaking of chairs. The turning of pages.
It’s a normal day in professor Sara Bianco’s class in American Sign Language, which since the fall semester can satisfy NIU’s undergraduate foreign language requirement.
Students are immersed in the silence from the moment they arrive: Bianco has been deaf since birth and comes from a Deaf family that spans four generations – the capital “D” referring a culture that regards deafness as a difference and not a disability.
“I’m sure students are intimidated when I point that out to them on the syllabus during the first class and type on a computer, ‘This rule starts now’ – they just haven’t learned the vocabulary to tell me so,” says Bianco, a professor in the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders since 2008.
“Before they have a chance to freak out and withdraw from the class, I use a variety of other communication methods to let them know that everything will be just fine. During the first day of class, I rely only on the board and the computer to communicate with students except when I teach students how to spell their first names if they don’t already know.”
Her accommodation is short-lived.
“From that point on, I continue using the computer and board, but with less and less frequency until students are able to understand me in sign completely,” she says. “Learning American Sign Language (ASL) is just like learning another foreign language. ASL is different in that it is a visual language, but it does not make the language any different than others.”
Before long, however, students seem familiar and comfortable with manual communication. Lessons begin with spelling names and everyday conversation: “Hello, how are you?”
In one early-semester classroom exercise, they sign with partners to learn how they spent the weekend. No one speaks, although some giggle at the signed answers.
Afterward, Bianco walks around the room, calling on students by pointing and smiling at them. Before they can report on their partners, they point at them to indicate who they are. All watch intently and unintentionally demonstrate their comprehension through nodding.
When Bianco teaches, she directs eyes to the overhead projection screen, which might show video clips with audio or printed diagrams with words.
She then models the new material, such as expressing numbers: One, two, three – those correspond to fingers. A twist of the hand transforms those to first, second and third.
Students also are required to participate in five hours of Deaf events; those without transportation or who feel they’re not ready can attend “silent dinners” with teaching assistants and other students at local restaurants. No one can use their voices, even when ordering.
“One of the challenges I hear time and again is understanding finger-spelling, especially at full speed. There are instructional DVDs and books dedicated to the topic, but it still seems to be just out of grasp for many,” she says. “Depending on the person who is signing, even a fluent signer may have a difficult time understanding another person’s spelling.”
NIU’s College of Health and Human Sciences offers four courses in sign language, which some studies place as the third-most widely used language in the United States. People who are deaf and hard of hearing make up an estimated 7 percent of the population and Deaf people 2 percent.
Yet few four-year universities in this part of the state – Chicago not included – offer ASL.
“Sara has done a wonderful job of helping us develop and offer a comprehensive American Sign Language curriculum,” says Sue Ouellette, chair of the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders. “The approval of ASL courses as an avenue for satisfying the university’s foreign language requirement allows many more students to learn this very useful language and to become better educated about the Deaf culture.”
Ninety-five students are enrolled in Bianco’s courses, and about 55 students are enrolled in two other sections of ASL1. Enrollment has grown tremendously from non-Communicative Disorders majors.
Successful completion of the entire curriculum does not guarantee fluency.
“The best way to learn a language is full immersion,” Bianco says. “They more time you spend with people whose first language is ASL, the better you become.”
However, learning sign language can give students an advantage in their careers.
Teachers are likely to find children who are deaf and hard of hearing in their classrooms. A majority of parents are applying the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to place their children with hearing loss in the least restrictive environment.
Most hospitals keep sign language interpreters on call, rather than on staff, even though patients who are deaf and hard of hearing have the same medical concerns as the rest of the population.
“Someone understanding the needs of a person who uses sign language could mean the difference between life and death in many ways,” Bianco says.
Bianco is “thrilled” and proud of NIU for counting ASL toward foreign language requirements ahead of a new state law that mandates it.
“Not only does learning sign language allow you to speak another language but it also opens up a new understanding of the people of two minority groups: people who are deaf and hard of hearing and Deaf people. That understanding and respect for us as a people goes a long way for us in going about our daily lives,” she says.
“Most students tell me that they love the language and want to learn more,” she adds. “Another common comment is that Deaf people are so patient, slowing down and teaching students as they go along in their conversation. Learning sign language opens up a bridge into the Deaf world. There are many wonderful experiences awaiting you.”