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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

American Sign Language in the Nest

ASL is one of the most popular languages taken on Hawk Hill.

Most of the American Sign Language (ASL) courses being offered next semester are filled to capacity, evidence of the growing popularity of ASL as a non-native language class option for St. Joe’s students.

Over 110 students are signed up for five sections of ASL, according to Thomas Buckley, Ph.D., assistant professor of modern and classical languages and chair of the department.

Buckley said ASL, in only its fifth year on campus, has now surpassed Italian as a choice for non-native language study, second only to Spanish.

“In first year courses, it’s the second largest, but that’s all we’ve offered so far,” Buckley said. “We’ve never offered anything beyond the first year.”

Buckley said next year, the department will offer a course beyond the first two semesters, in part to appeal to students who already have two to three years of ASL instruction in high school as well as to meet the demand of students who want to continue studying the language.

Erin Noonan ’18 counts ASL as one of her favorite classes at St. Joe’s.

“I just think it’s interesting how you’re not only learning the language, but you’re also learning about the culture and what deaf people do, ” Noonan said.

Some students think taking sign language will be easier than other languages. However, this is not the case according to Heather Schmerman, adjunct professor of modern and classical language, who is a native sign language user and has been signing since she was a child.

Jessica Melusky ’18, who took ASL her freshman year, signs “ASL” in sign language (Photos by Maura Donnelly ’20).

“People think you can pick it up overnight,” Schmerman said. “It takes practice and memorization just like Spanish or French. It is its own language, and it is its own culture.”

Sara Gray ’20 had a similar experience when she took American Sign Language I and II her first year at St. Joe’s.

“Sign language is a little more demanding than other languages, but hard work pays off when you’re able to sign with someone who is not hearing,” Gray said.

The first course in the sequence starts off with the basics: colors, letters, names and numbers. By the end of the first semester, students should be able to hold a basic conversation in signs with topics including days of the week, what courses they’re taking in college and what they want to do that night.

Schmerman said she enjoys watching students meet the challenges of learning another language and culture.

“I see students actually gain experience about deaf culture and rich language,” she said.

In American Sign Language II, students learn how to engage in more in-depth conversations. They are also encouraged to attend events for members of the deaf community and to immerse themselves in deaf culture.

Buckley said sign language especially appeals to students majoring in special education and autism studies, even psychology.

Emmanuelle Cogent ’20, an autism studies major, said the courses help her in her job at the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support.

“I’m already trilingual and languages come easy to me,” Cogent said. “In my field, the more language you know that can help a family with ASD [autism spectrum disorder], the better able you are to accommodate them.”

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