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Friday, Jun 21, 2024

I “learned” American Sign Language in a month… Middlebury College says you can too

It is well known to language learners that the Middlebury Language Schools’ summer programs serve as some of the most preeminent immersion opportunities in the country. In just seven or eight weeks, complete beginners and advanced learners alike are completely immersed in one of the thirteen languages offered.

Abenaki, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish are the languages that encompass both the summer schools’ curriculum and some of the college’s vast foreign language department offerings throughout the academic year. However, there’s a very important language missing from this list: American Sign Language (ASL), which feels like a significant oversight.

Middlebury is regularly applauded for its renowned language offerings, but has historically offered only one section of ASL. This course is taught exclusively during J-Term and only enrolls about twenty students. This past January, I was one of the lucky few able to register in that single section. The class was, and has been previously, taught by visiting professor John Pirone from the University of Vermont, as there are currently no employed instructors of ASL at Middlebury.

I can unequivocally say that ASL has been one of my favorite courses that I’ve taken during my time at Middlebury. We were immersed in the language from the very first class — solely relying on signing for communication. The course went far beyond just language learning, as we learned about Deaf culture in addition to ASL. As we approached the end of January, I was deeply saddened and frustrated by the fact that my learning of ASL would abruptly end after only one month of immersion. 

Middlebury also offers language tables: an immersive lunch experience in Proctor Dining Hall with dedicated practice and communication with others only in the target language. However, due to not having the resources, the ASL language table is only available to students during J-Term. 

A lack of ASL courses and resources is not unique to Middlebury. Many other colleges and universities don’t offer any. However, we should be working to bridge that gap, as approximately half a million people throughout the United States and Canada communicate using ASL as their native language, making it one of the most used languages in the United States. 

The Deaf community faces a multitude of barriers already, so why should communication have to be another one? If Middlebury is going to continue boasting a status as a top language school in the country, a greater number of ASL courses need to be offered during the school year and in the summer language schools. 

From a student perspective, I know that there is certainly a demand for them. As I said before, I was one of the lucky few actually able to register for ASL this January. Sophomores registered for a J-Term class during the first registration block, so it wasn’t a surprise when all the seats in ASL were quickly filled. What was a surprise was the fact that nearly everyone in the class was majoring in something completely unrelated to language. We were all there, drawn only by natural curiosity to learn the language, further demonstrating the desire of students to have access to ASL curriculum at Middlebury.

As a student in Middlebury’s Russian Department, I know how dedicated the college can be to teaching languages; but that support is certainly not there for ASL. Key factors in the development of fluency in any language are immersion and practice. How, then, are students of ASL expected to continue learning when ASL resources vanish after only a month?

As a student wishing to continue studying ASL, I had to look externally, enrolling in online modules through the Oklahoma School for the Deaf. Of course, the pursuit of these is purely of my own volition, and I will not receive any academic credit. Ultimately though, I shouldn't have to look for ASL classes externally, considering that Middlebury has such vastly supported language programs in other departments. Middlebury should update its claim: it offers preeminent programs of vocal language, with a large gap where nonverbal languages like American Sign Language should exist.


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