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Senate bill would require American Sign Language classes to be counted as a foreign language

April 04, 2001
By: Jennifer Ginsberg
State Capital Bureau
Links: SB 284

JEFFERSON CITY - Students are not allowed to talk for three hours in Art Dignan's class. The only sounds are hands smacking together to configure signs to translate from English to American Sign Language and then back again.

Dignan teaches interpreting at William Woods University in nearby Fulton. The program not only offers ASL classes, it is also one of ten universities in the nation, and the only in the Midwest, to offer a bachelor's degree in interpreting.

Sen. Sarah Steelman, R-Rolla, is sponsoring a bill she says is aimed at getting more colleges to offer the classes and encourage students to take the classes.

This bill would require ASL to be counted as a foreign language in college and allow ASL classes taken in high school to count as a foreign language credit for college admission.

Jim Morris, chief information director for Missouri's Education Department, said if a high school offers ASL classes, it will be counted as a foreign language toward high school graduation. But, very few Missouri high schools offer ASL classes as part of their curriculum.

"If higher education won't recognize it for meeting the foreign language credit, there is little incentive for high schools to offer it," Morris said.

Ted Tarkow, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at MU, said he has never seen a record where a students has taken four years of ASL in high school.

Tarkow said a committee made up of faculty members in the college would discuss whether or not to accept ASL classes as a foreign language, if a student came to MU with previous ASL course work.

None of the three high education institutions in Columbia offer ASL classes, said spokesmen.

Judith Clark, languages and literature chair at Stephens College, said some students occasionally ask for ASL classes.

"A great many students would be interested. I've had a number of students who know about sign language who want it," Clark said.

But, Stephens does not have a foreign language requirement to graduate from the college, unless the student is majoring in international studies or Spanish, said Linda Sharp, assistant registrar. Since foreign language is not a campus-wide requirement, there is not as much incentive to offer ASL classes.

Stephens does offer Spanish and French classes, and has offered introduction to Japanese language and culture and introduction to Chinese language and culture in the past. When asked why the college does not offer ASL, Sharp said it "never had any real call or anyone to teach it."

At William Woods, ASL classes count as part of the course work for interpreting majors and minors and an elective for non-majors. But, for Margie Coatney, a junior who transferred from Southern Missouri State University, the ASL classes did fulfill her foreign language requirement.

For some people, including Dr. Roy Miller, the director of the Missouri Commission for the Deaf, offering and accepting ASL classes as foreign language credits is about removing what he believes is the second class stigma of ASL in schools.

Steelman's bill, which is being considered by the Senate education committee, would allow ASL to be counted as a foreign language for hearing and deaf students.

"Hearing students have to take English classes," said Dignan through Carrie McCray, his interpreter. "ASL is our native language--not English."

He used a French person moving to the United States as an example: "Their natural language might be French, but they learn English and that's the bilingual approach. So ASL is basically the same as knowing a second language."

Dignan pointed out that ASL is it's own language.

"It has it's own rules, grammar and syntax. All of the languages have things in common, all are spoken or written but, ASL is neither written or spoken, it's a visual language."