American Sign Language could become an available minor as soon as fall 2021.
Students are currently able to take their knowledge of the language up to ASL 202, and one deaf culture class is offered.
The minor will allow classes to go up to level 302 and will add courses on the structures of sign language — syntax, phonology, morphology, semantics, language use and linguistics — Robin Shay, senior lecturer of ASL, said via email.
The ASL department is working on a lengthy process to get the minor approved.
“We have been discussing the idea of a minor in ASL for a few years now,” Shay said. “The proposal was submitted this semester and has just been presented at the College of Liberal Arts Senate meeting.”
There is a year of obstacles left before the minor is officially available.
“The approval process is quite long. It goes through the college, then through the registrar’s office and the University and kind of loops back through some of those sequences,” said Lori Czerwionka, professor and interim associate head of the School of Languages and Cultures.
Shay said she finds that students generally express a desire to learn more upon completion of ASL 202.
Gabrielle Trent, a junior in the College of Liberal Arts, said she wants the minor to be available before she graduates.
“I would 100% love to minor in ASL. I’ve actually taken all the classes offered here in hopes of being able to minor in it,” Trent said. “I really hope that before I graduate, they will offer the classes necessary to get a minor.”
Czerwionka said stopping at the 202 level can be limiting when learning a language.
“Once you get to four semesters of a language, you’re just hitting that point where you’re becoming a more natural user of that language,” Czerwionka said. “When people are excited at that level, you don’t want them to just have to stop and have to look too far to further their knowledge.”
Shay said she wants students to understand that the addition of the minor doesn’t mean that they will be certified interpreters.
“We want students to be aware when earning a minor in ASL doesn’t mean you are qualified to do any interpreting assignments. That is another ballpark,” she said. “They have to go to the interpreting training program.”
In 2013, ASL jumped to the third most popular secondary language — bumping down German — for people to study at Purdue, right behind Spanish and French, Czerwionka said.
With 15 languages offered by the University, students explained why ASL was the second language that they wanted to learn.
“I wanted to learn ASL because I was a swim coach and had multiple swimmers who have disabilities who use ASL to communicate,” said Kristen Smith, a sophomore in the College of Health and Human Sciences. “So, for me, it was to better relate to my swimmers and make them feel included and understood.”
Victoria Cooper, a sophomore in the College of Health and Human Sciences, said learning the language will help her in her future career.
“I wanted to learn ASL because I can use it as a future speech pathologist,” Cooper said. “For kids who may be nonverbal it can be incredibly important to start them on some mode of communication, and sign language is one of them.”
Even though the University does not currently offer an ASL minor, when comparing the curriculum to other universities that do, Purdue has a greater focus on culture, Czerwionka said.
“Other universities that have ASL programs get through more grammatical content or signs, but what I don’t see there that I see here, is an emphasis on culture,” she said.
Czerwionka said that having a lack of representation and understanding of the deaf population can be detrimental.
“It’s important that people like police officers, teachers and people who serve the public in any way have a good sense of what the deaf population is in their local area and how to interact with them,” she said. “I remember hearing stories on the news of police officers approaching and assume that people weren’t responding because they didn’t want to, not because they couldn’t hear them.”
Having a focus on deaf culture can help educate people into how to interact with members of the deaf community, Czerwionka said.
“Our ASL instructors do a really good job of making ... the School of Languages and Cultures more aware of the absence of deaf culture in the mainstream media,” she said. “I think that through developing the minor, we’ll continue to inform people and to make them more aware of how important this language is.”
The objective of the minor is to create an even higher level of awareness of deaf culture.
“The mission for ASL/Deaf Studies minor is to provide students more awareness within the deaf community and prepare them to interact with the members of the deaf community more positively and effectively,” Shay said via email.
Some students say that the current teaching of ASL has created a positive learning environment for them.
“I think the best part of learning ASL is the total immersion you get in the classroom. Having a deaf professor really enhances my learning as well as my understanding of deaf culture,” Smith said. “I also enjoy the silence in the classroom and how we only can communicate in sign language.”
Trent has found that her knowledge of ASL has already come in handy.
“The best part about knowing ASL is just the fact that now I have the opportunity to communicate with a whole group of people easier,” she said. “It gives me the opportunity to learn more about the deaf community.”
Other students said they’re using their knowledge to help teach others.
“The best part about learning ASL is being able to teach others the basics. I am involved in college mentors for kids here at Purdue and all the kids had me teach them how to spell their name,” Cooper said. “Another amazing part is how I will be able to teach my future students it as well.”