Have you ever walked by Starbucks on a Monday night and seen a large group of people on the couches, all gesturing with their hands? These people are not just using hand signals, they are communicating with an entire language that uses no audible words: American Sign Language.

Believe it or not, ASL is an entirely different language from English, with different grammar and syntax rules expressed using the signer’s facial expressions. ASL is offered as a humanity course at UR by a variety of professors, all of whom have been deaf since birth.

Upon entering an ASL class, no words are spoken and speaking out loud in class is discouraged. Now, the question most people would ask is, how do the professors teach if they do not speak? Intro ASL classes teach the basics of learning any new language, such as greetings, how to introduce yourself and the alphabet. If a student is really confused, a professor will resort to writing on the board, but the majority of the time, it is very easy to understand what the professor is trying to teach. Once the basic foundation is laid down, each progressive ASL class becomes easier and easier to understand until, finally, a full conversation using ASL can be achieved.

Deaf individuals have a very different culture from that of people who can hear. Deaf people are isolated in the fact that, from a very young age, they are different from the majority of the hearing population, and since there are a limited number of deaf people in a certain area, they are an extremely close-knit community that values the exchange of information.

Young deaf children can attend Residential Deaf Schools, where, at a young age, they live away from home to live at the school where they are taught ASL. Considering that most children are scared of the first day of school and being separated from their parents, it is extraordinary that deaf children not only leave their parents to go to school, but leave their homes as well. When two people who are deaf meet for the first time, it is normal for them to not only exchange information about themselves, but also which Residential School they attended and graduated from and where they continued their education.

Once they graduate from a Residential School, a deaf individual may attend Gallaudet University, a federally chartered, quasi-governmental university for the education of the deaf and hard-of-hearing, located in Washington, D.C. It was the world’s first school for the advanced education of the deaf and hard-of-hearing and it is still the world’s only university in which all programs and services are specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

ASL is adapted from the French version, where sign language first originated as an official language.

Different countries have their own versions of sign language that do not overlap. For example, British Sign Language, although similar to American Sign Language, has different signs than the American type for different things.

The ASL community on campus is a warm and welcoming place, where professors and students develop very close relationships. The ASL club welcomes new members, regardless of signing skill level. In fact, Silent Coffee on Mondays (the group of people sitting in a circle and signing outside Starbucks) encourages ASL beginners to come and join, since practice is the only way to improve your sign language ability.

The skill levels of the people who attend Silent Coffee range from people who have just started learning ASL to those who are about to finish it as their major. This variety of skill levels helps students learn new signs as well as polish what they have learned so far.

Considering that spring course registration is coming up, why not try something new and take an ASL class? You just might broaden your horizons and open your eyes to a totally different community on campus.

Jung is a member of the class of 2011.

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