Learning About Deaf Culture in ASL Classes

Learning about American Sign Language and the deaf community has been a highlight in my experience at York University. Three levels of American Sign Language classes are offered at the University, and about 130 students enroll in these classes each year.

The classes are a good size. About three sections run for ASL 1000, with about 20 students in each class, and currently the two sections of ASL 2000 are running with around the same number of students. Unfortunately, level 3000 has not run in the past few years due to the university not seeing a demand for it.

ASL classes are often neglected. Even this year, my professor expressed her desire to teach a separate course on the history of deaf culture, as well as other courses more focused on studying deaf culture. As a student who values ASL classes at York, it saddens me that after this year I most likely will not get to take another ASL class as the level 3000 class often does not run.

I wanted to share some of my positive experiences with the classes as well as the importance of being educated about the deaf community, and hopefully encourage more students to take the ASL classes that York University offers. It really is a great experience, and the classmates I have talked to have had nothing but positive remarks to make. Sara Coutinho, a student in ASL 2000,  says it is “a great experience to learn another language and become immersed in deaf culture.”

Source: Wokandapics

I have had the experience of being taught by three out of the four ASL teachers at York University. All the teachers have their own stories to tell, and throughout the course, they share aspects of their life and what it is like to be a member of the deaf community. This really submerges the students into deaf culture. My teacher last year told us the story of how he was raised in an all hearing family. He struggled in school until he was finally introduced to sign language when he was fourteen years old, and was eventually immersed in the deaf community.

The ASL professors at York are all very passionate, and they really make the courses enjoyable. In the end, they all want students to succeed. It is clear that they admire their students’ effort in learning the language, and they are very accommodating. It is a language course, and as more vocabulary is taught throughout the year, the teacher will share a suitable facts about them using the vocabulary, putting it to practice. The students in the class are encouraged to do the same. This results in a classroom experience unlike lectures, where you actually learn everyone's name and other facts about them. It’s important that the classroom environment is like a community because you are essentially learning about a community.

When you step into the classroom, you turn your voice off. You talk to your friends in ASL and with that you learn more about the language. It’s really interesting because even if you don’t know every sign used, you can still grasp the overall idea of what someone is saying, and you learn to be a more visual learner.

A class often consists of some time dedicated to practicing vocabulary through conversations in pairs, sometimes group work such as storytelling or games occur, and then a section of the class is dedicated to learning more signs from the teacher, often strengthened by a video.

The beginners course (ASL 1000), also includes about five short documentary viewings which really help students learn visually about how the deaf community functions and what it values.

The deaf community is larger than some may think. The Canadian Hearing Society says that in Ontario alone, as of the 2006 count,  530,210 citizens are deaf or hard of hearing.

There are many benefits for learning the language. Bilingualism enhances cognitive processes, and learning sign language not also increases your literacy, visual and creative skills, but Handspeak (an online dictionary for ASL), says that ASL also enriches your visual-perceptual skills: spatial awareness, mental rotation skills, visual sensitivity and more!

There are a lot of benefits to learning ASL, and although in the U.S. it is the fourth most studied language by students in universities, that’s not the case here in Canada. This is a shame because it is such a beautiful language, and learning about deaf culture has really had a positive impact on my life.

If you’re a student at York University who’s looking for an elective to take that you can really get something out of, take the ASL classes. They will be the highlight of your educational career.