Walk into almost any class at Yale and you will see students filing into lecture halls or around tables, stripping their coats and hats as they find their seats. You will see books and laptops frantically pulled from backpacks as the professor shuffles towards the front. And what will you hear? You will hear keyboards clacking, boots stomping, mouths chatting. You will hear hushes as the professor begins.
But in one class, you won’t hear any of that. Silence, sporadically accompanied by bits of laughter, fills a single classroom at Yale: American Sign Language. Here, for 50 minutes each day speaking is prohibited, and communication is through sight. While their peers learn Chinese characters, Arabic pronunciations and French vocabulary, students taking ASL are learning to be purposefully perceptive of facial expressions and dexterous with their hands and arms. They are doing it immersively, silently.
“I really enjoy the silent classroom,” said Zainab Hamid ’19, a former News editor, who is taking ASL Level 1 this semester. “You avoid issues like interrupting.” Hamid laughed as she thought about walking out of class each afternoon, briefly forgetting she can use her voice.
Not long ago, ASL learning at Yale was confined to a club and a dining hall language table each week. There was no institutional recognition of the language some students knew and others wished they could learn. Students had to fulfill the foreign language requirement in other ways with other languages.
But last semester, a pilot of an ASL Level 1 course was finally offered. Demand was exceptional, and the seminar filled quickly. Jessica Tanner, a native signer from the Deaf community with lots of pedagogical experience teaching ASL, is the lector for Yale’s American Sign Language courses. Prior to last semester, Tanner taught the Directed Independent Language Study offerings at Yale for seven years.
The ASL courses, like other languages, are taught for 50 minutes every day. Tanner explained the challenges of these short classes: “Time just seems to fly right by when I am teaching. My students seem to be so into my classes; when I say class is over, most of them have the shocked and disappointed look on their faces but then smile when I say, ‘see you tomorrow,’” Tanner explained.
For the first class, Tanner spoke to her students through a translator. But for every class since then, the students were only able to speak with their professor through signing: immersion by necessity.
Though the standardization and development of American Sign Language is only about two centuries old, the use of similar physical languages extends far earlier. Records dating from as early as 1541 show Native Americans using a signing language to communicate with various other tribes. It was also commonly used by hearing parents to communicate with their deaf children. More formalized versions began to develop in New England in the 19th century, with Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) being one of the most prominent.
After spending time learning deaf pedagogy from European institutions for Deaf students, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet ’1805 returned to the United States in 1817 to open the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut — which is thought to be the birthplace of American Sign Language. Gallaudet’s son, Edward Miner Gallaudet, is the namesake of Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., a federally chartered private university for the education of the Deaf and hard of hearing. Gallaudet University now educates about 1,000 undergraduate students. It was not until the 1960s that ASL was formally recognized as a language and a way of standardizing Deaf education. In 1972, James Woodward, co-director of the Centre for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, proposed the distinction between deafness and Deaf culture, hence creating the varying capitalization.
But despite the language’s rich history, it was not until 2018 that ASL was taught for credit at Yale. Raffaella Zanuttini, the director of undergraduate studies in linguistics, told the News about the fight for the new program.
“I started working on trying to introduce ASL as a subject of study at Yale in February 2017,” Zanuttini explained. “One of our linguistics majors, Kate Rosenberg ’18, reached out to me to solicit faculty support.”
Following a proposal Zanuttini developed on behalf of the linguistics faculty, the administration allocated resources for an ASL pilot program.
“Then just a couple of weeks ago, having ascertained interest in the program, they committed resources for the program to continue past the pilot stage. In other words, ASL is now a subject of study at Yale, and it is here to stay,” Zanuttini explained.
This continuation of ASL education marks a significant commitment by Yale to diversify its foreign language curriculum. Tanner hopes that Yale will soon hire another ASL professor “so that the students would be more aware of ‘sign accents’ and be able to understand various people despite their signing styles.”
Zanuttini’s proposal for the pilot period of ASL included linguistic research into the role of language in human nature.
“Recent research,” Zanuttini wrote in her proposal, “has been showing that sign languages are not merely equals to spoken languages but are also able to tell us unique things about language and cognition that spoken languages cannot.”
Zanuttini explained she feels grateful for the support she received for this new establishment. She noted that even though she took the lead, the effort was “truly collaborative.” Zanuttini specifically noted the contributions of Director of the Center for Language Study Nelleke van Deusen-Scholl, Associate Dean of Yale College George Levesque and Senior Associate Dean of FAS John Mangan.
ASL is often said to be the fourth most used language in the United States. While the language itself is not rooted in English, it is specific to the United States.
“I [can]not understand Japanese Sign Language or Italian Sign Language. Even British Sign Language is really different,” said Ely Sibarium ’21, who took extensive sign language courses at Gallaudet University before coming to Yale.
According to Sibarium, the physical signs of these languages developed in isolation from each other, and therefore do not align. Many people speak the language they do because of the lasting effects of colonization, Sibarium said, which is not the case for sign language. The patterns of auditory language movement through imposition do not have a parallel for sign languages, he added.
In the classroom, the students begin by learning the alphabet, which serves as a backup when signs are unknown. It’s called finger spelling. Aside from finger spelling, though, ASL is unique in that it is learned by associating movement with objects and actions that are understood outside of the English words for them. In that sense, then, the language is independent of a knowledge of English. Where Spanish vocabulary, for example, is learned by memorizing a list of translations, ASL vocabulary is learned by practicing physical movements that correspond to real, tangible concepts.
“Your vocabulary builds,” explained Sibarium, “just in a less traditional way. I would say it’s better because it’s more natural. …When babies are acquiring language, they don’t have someone giving them a list of words in a language they already know … they just have the objects in the physical world.”
Described by her students as “an angel,” Tanner feels just as passionate about her students.
“For me, my students are not numbers but people with different backgrounds, values and life experiences. I love learning about them as much as they love learning from me, so it benefits us both ways,” Tanner said.
Tanner teaches not only about vocabulary, grammar, literature and technique, but also about Deaf culture and linguistics.
While Yale’s foreign language requirement can be used for students to learn a new language or continue practicing one learned in high school, Sibarium discussed the importance of connecting with the languages, traditions and cultures that are present in students’ lives before Yale.
“I was super excited to have literally anyone learning ASL,” he said. “I just have a big piece of my heart in that community, so having other people to sign with just makes me really happy.”
“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,” echoed Zanuttini, reflecting on the community being built around ASL at Yale.
For others, like Hamid, the prospect of learning ASL is a novelty. Hamid noted the warm classroom environment and the divergence of ASL from her typical Yale courses to be what makes it so appealing. She spoke passionately about her hope to take Level 2 next semester.
This passion in all of her students is what moves Tanner. “One [student] stated that the energy of my classroom pepped them up for the rest of the day. It gave me a good feeling that students look forward to coming to my classes, and that I made a difference in their college life experience.”
Currently, Zanuttini is organizing a panel to celebrate the introduction of ASL as a subject of study at Yale. Titled “Sign languages and the mind: their history, science and power,” the Nov. 9 panel will be composed of two sign language scholars, both Deaf, and a Yale alumnus who retired early from his career as a corporate lawyer to study the history of signed languages in Europe and the United States.
Contact Shayna Elliot | firstname.lastname@example.org .