When Selena Martinez ’22 applied to Yale, it was still unclear whether she would be able to take American Sign Language, which she grew up using at home, for all four years. At that time, the ASL program, which began last semester, was operating in a pilot stage set to end in July 2019. But last month, Yale made the ASL program part of its permanent curriculum.

“ASL is a big reason I wanted to come here,” said Martinez, who is currently taking ASL 130 at Yale. “It’s my first language, the language I use at home and the language I’m most comfortable with … It’s really nice to walk into a class and feel like your culture is being represented.”

The ASL program, which is based in the Department of Linguistics, was approved last fall and began offering Level 1 and Level 2 courses this past spring. When the pilot program ends next summer, the Linguistics Department will hire a lector in ASL for a three-year appointment, according to the Linguistics Department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies Raffaella Zanuttini.

In the 2020–21 school year, the Teaching Resource Advisory Committee will review the program again to ensure students have a sustained interest in the program.

“Though I took the lead, this effort was truly collaborative,” Zanuttini said. “People from different parts of our institution came together to make it possible, moved by intellectual or personal reasons and by the desire to make Yale a more inclusive place.”

Associate Dean of Yale College George Levesque, Senior Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences John Mangan and Center for Language Study Director Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl were also instrumental in the program’s success, Zanuttini said.

This semester, the department offers two sections of the L1 class, which enroll 13 and 14 students respectively, and an L3 class, which enrolls five students. Next spring, L2 and L4 courses will be offered. All ASL courses can be applied toward the foreign language requirement.

According to Yale Course Demand Statistics, 59 students expressed interest in taking ASL 110 this fall at the peak of shopping period, compared to 45 students in the spring 2018. Jessica Tanner, the current ASL instructor, said that she capped each class at 14 students since ASL is a visual language that requires more one-on-one work.

Tanner praised the renewal of the program and said she plans on re-applying when Yale conducts a nationwide search for a new instructor next July.

“Yale is known for its progressive educational philosophy and I am grateful that it is finally recognizing ASL as a foreign language,” Tanner wrote in an email. “The ASL classes will shed some insight on how the deaf people live, their challenges, and their struggles. This is a hearing-dominant world that we live in. … The more awareness that the ASL classes will teach, the less deaf people will struggle to be heard.”

Tanner, who comes from the deaf community herself, added that deaf people are the most underserved of all minority groups, and said she hopes that the ASL program’s expansion increases Yalies’ awareness and appreciation of the deaf community.

Before the creation of the pilot program, the only option to learn ASL at Yale was through the University’s Directed Independent Language Study program. DILS, which allows students to study a language not taught in a Yale classroom, does not grant course credits. Before becoming Yale’s full-time ASL lector, Tanner taught the courses as part of the DILS program. ASL was “among the most popular” languages offered through the program in recent years, according to Van Deusen-Scholl.

Zanuttini said she proposed establishing the ASL program in 2017 in response to growing student demand for ASL classes. In February 2017, a report from the Yale College Council Task Force on Disability Resources found that over 50 percent of students wanted a “formal sign language sequence for course credit.”

Van Deusen-Scholl added that students have a variety of reasons to take ASL classes, such as interest in performing arts and disability studies as well as the desire to communicate with deaf friends and relatives.

ASL is also interesting to study from a linguistics perspective, Zanuttini said, and some people with dyslexia or Down syndrome prefer to study a language without a spoken component.

Ely Sibarium ’21, who is currently taking ASL 130 and took ASL 120 last spring, said he is “super thrilled” that Yale will continue formally offering the language. Still, Sibarium said he hopes the department hires more ASL instructors, as there is more student demand than the three classes can accommodate.

Tanner also said she would like Yale to bring in a second ASL instructor because all deaf people have “accents” and students should be exposed to different signing styles.

ASL is often said to be the fourth-most used language in the United States.

Alice Park | alice.park@yale.edu .