Yale will offer two undergraduate courses next semester in American Sign Language — the first to be offered for course credit.

The new program, which will operate in a pilot stage until spring 2019, will be offered by the Department of Linguistics and begin with Level 1 and Level 2 courses next semester, according to the department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies Raffaella Zanuttini. The courses will be taught by Jessica Tanner, who currently teaches ASL courses as part of the University’s Directed Independent Language Study program, the only option that currently exists for students wishing to learn ASL at Yale. Next fall, the linguistics department will appoint a full-time lector who will teach Level 1 and Level 3 ASL courses. If there is sufficient interest the offerings will continue in subsequent years, with five courses offered each year.

The program was approved by the Language Study Committee in April and by Yale’s Teaching Resource Advisory Committee in September, according to Zanuttini.

Because the program’s syllabus and official curriculum have not yet been written or submitted for review by Yale College’s Course of Study Committee, the sequence will not count toward Yale’s language requirement during its initial rollout, said Director of the Center for Language Study Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, who chaired the language committee that approved Zanuttini’s proposal for the program. Zanuttini said she is optimistic that the program will ultimately win approval.

“ASL is a language,” Zanuttini said. “Studying it certainly allows students to meet the goals of the language requirement. We aren’t saying no because we think ASL isn’t on par with other languages — we absolutely do — it’s just the fact that it’s still a pilot program.”

According to Yale College Council President Matt Guido ’19, the council’s Task Force on Disability Resources gathered student opinion data about the possibility of an ASL course sequence in last year’s YCC spring survey.

More than 55 percent of 130 respondents indicated that they were in favor of “offering a formal sign language sequence for course credit,” Guido said. After gathering data, the task force issued a report recommending that Yale offer such a sequence in order to expose students to deaf culture and cultivate a more inclusive space on campus for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

According to the chair of the task force, Nicolas Zevallos, the group proceeded to meet with Yale administrators, including director of the DILS program, Angela Gleeson and Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews.

“[The administrators] were able to generate significant interest amongst administration but ran into a couple predictable problems: funding for the program and questions as to where the program would be housed,” Zevallos said.

After reading the YCC report, Kate Rosenberg ’18 and a fellow student in the ASL course she was taking through DILS decided to reach out to Zanuttini and other faculty members to lobby for the program. In the process of gauging student support for a formal course sequence, Rosenberg founded an ASL club for students interested in both language practice and appreciation of deaf culture. In April, she sent a survey to the club’s mailing list, which found that there was a high-level of interest in a formal ASL course sequence, particularly among first-year respondents.

In her proposal to Yale, which came as a response to the high levels of student interest gauged by YCC and Rosenberg, Zanuttini gave historical background on ASL, explaining why the language was not originally offered at Yale.

“Given that the realization that sign languages are languages [that] came only 50 years ago, it is not surprising that ASL has not been a subject of study at Yale from the beginning,” the proposal states. “However, it is surprising that we have not yet included it among our offerings, and it is time that we fill this gap.”

According to Zanuttini, interest in learning ASL through the DILS program increased steadily from nine applications in 2010 to 29 applications in 2014 — of which only 23 were accepted in light of limited resources. This semester’s OCS course demand statistics show that this interest levels exceeds that of multiple formal language courses currently taught for credit, including Akkadian, Hungarian, Modern Tibetan, Persian, Polish, Punjabi, Romanian, Sanskrit, Turkish, Vietnamese and Zulu.

And while ASL is not linked to a foreign country, Zanuttini said that study abroad programs will still be available for students who choose to study the language, in addition to domestic internship and school exchange opportunities. At the University of Rochester, she said, students in the ASL program travel to Paris to learn about French sign language and deaf culture in France.

ASL courses are offered by Brown, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Princeton and Cornell.

Natalie Wright | natalie.wright.nw27@yale.edu