A voice for deaf culture

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American Sign Language is a hands-on affair that can be spoken with style and flair.

Shannon Engelhart says that is fine, but ASL is a language, not a performing art.

Engelhart, SWC’s new assistant professor of ASL, is at the vanguard of a movement to move the deaf community toward success in the hearing world while also celebrating the unique beauty of deaf culture.

Sign language is probably thousands of years old and in many ways uniquely American. European explorers first noted Plains Indians communicating across tribal linguistic barriers by using a sophisticated sign language. ASL is more than 200 years old and, like spoken languages, has endured in complexity and nuance.

Engelhart said a lot of people have misconceptions about ASL.

“They think it’s beautiful and so pretty,” she said. “I understand their perspective, but at the same time it is a language with its own history and structure.”

It is important that people recognize ASL as an actual language essential to a large population, Engelhart said. Though ASL can be spoken artfully as English can be spoken artfully, ASL students must always remember that ASL is essential to thinking, forming communication and expression for the deaf as well as their family and friends.

“I want students to have more respect for the deaf community and its members,” she said. “I want them to know that there are different types of sign languages out there and ASL is just one of them.”

World Languages Chair Esther Alonso said ASL classes enlighten students on what to do when they encounter those who are deaf, even if they do not know how to sign.

“We have always tried to inform people, not just our students, on the importance of being conversant in another language and culturally competent,” she said.

Alonso said ASL courses have been offered at SWC since 2001, but they were not always part of the World Languages Department.

“Some people did not believe it would fit well because it wasn’t a world language,” Alonso said.

At first ASL was part of the communication department, which emphasizes oral communication. Alonso said the movement to include ASL as a world language was fired by scholars who insist it shares characteristics with other foreign languages. She said demand for ASL training has increased and SWC needed a full-time expert to manage its classes and curriculum.

“The program has grown because there is interest and now we have a full-time instructor,” she said. “That’s crucial.”

Students have different reasons for taking ASL.

Bilingual student Claudia Valdivia, 21, a communications major, said she did not want to learn a language that she would only use if she went outside the country. Though she met the language requirement for her major, she decided to keep going and take a third ASL class.

“I thought ASL was going to be the most useful to learn and also the most interesting,” she said.

“Most people would be surprised how much we have in common with the deaf community. We laugh at the same things and get sad about the same things. Being deaf isn’t a disability, it’s a culture.”

Engelhart, who is deaf, agrees that America has a rich deaf culture that relatively few are able to access. She said ASL is the deaf community’s way of expressing itself. She said she would like students to take that understanding with them once they leave the program.

“I really pull out the students’ cultures, too, and then I’ll model mine and the deaf culture,” she said. “I empower the class to work together as a team to remind each other if they did something inappropriate, to really make this environment deaf friendly.”

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