What good is learning a foreign language? That question, asked with neither flippant nor ethnocentric intent, was put to the University of Vermont Faculty Senate, who voted Monday to change the university's entrance requirements to allow American Sign Language (ASL) to count as a second language.
The measure brings UVM's admission standards in line with a bill passed by the 2002 Legislature and signed into law in May, which requires Vermont's secondary schools to accept ASL for foreign language credits. Thirty-three other state legislatures have passed similar laws recognizing ASL as a language that should be taught in public schools.
Currently, UVM requires incoming freshmen to have completed at least two years of the same foreign language in high school. Many professors who sided both for and against the measure acknowledge that ASL qualifies as a distinct language with its own grammar, syntax and symbols, and is not merely a variant of spoken and written English. A major bone of contention, however, was whether the university should recognize ASL as a "foreign" language that gives students insight into a culture different from their own.
Some supporters of the change argued that the American deaf community qualifies as a distinct culture with its own customs, literature, folklore, humor, poetry and so on. Opponents maintained that hearing-impaired Americans merely occupy a subculture of mainstream American society without a significant body of literature comparable to other foreign languages like German or French.
"What the College of Arts and Science gave us as an institution was the notion that students at the University of Vermont would come in already able to read a sentence in physics, in chemistry, in philosophy, in history, in some other language besides English," said Philip Ambrose, a classics professor who voted against the proposal.
"I am very fond of ASL. I have driven myself half batty trying to learn it. It is very difficult," Ambrose added. "[But] English is not included amongst the options for foreign languages taught at Gallaudet University [for the deaf in Washington, D.C.]."
Acknowledging such concerns, the Student Affairs Committee, which brought the motion, chose to call ASL a "second," rather than a "foreign" language.
Several professors made the case that cultural insights can be gained through avenues other than learning a language, such as studying history or anthropology. Others asked whether cultural insight is the sole benefit of studying a foreign language.
"To what extent does the challenge of understanding a different language structure, different linguistic concepts embedded in learning another language, increase a student's ability to think critically and look from different perspectives?" asked Sherwood Smith, an assistant professor of integrated professional studies who speaks both Spanish and Swahili. "I would at least argue that from my limited knowledge of ASL that it is very challenging and... does serve the same purpose as foreign language study."
But others maintain that learning the languages of other nations helps keep Americans from becoming culturally solipsistic.
"Certainly ASL is a language, and if the goal is to have people study a language simply to understand how language systems work then ASL is like anything else," said Donna Kuizenga, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. In an interview prior to the meeting, Kuizenga took no position on the ASL motion. "If the goal is to create international awareness and to get people out of thinking that the United States and its culture and problems are the only things driving the world, then there's a reason to have a foreign language."
Since 1994 UVM students have not needed to take a foreign language in order to graduate -- the requirement was dropped for budgetary reasons. Although foreign language enrollments declined precipitously following that decision, Kuizenga said they have been on the rise ever since. That trend is also reflected in foreign language enrollments in public high schools nationwide, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. From a low of 22.6 percent in 1982, foreign language enrollments have nearly doubled.
On the other side of the debate is the rising prominence of ASL, which is now the fourth most commonly used language in the United State and Canada. Nevertheless, the Gallaudet Research Institute found recently that in families with a deaf or hard-of-hearing member, more than 70 percent still do not sign regularly in the household.
"What you have are two laudable goals occupying the same space and that leads to some confusion," says Kuizenga, whose area of expertise is 17th-century French novels. "It is certainly important to be sensitive to the perspectives and concerns of minority communities within the United States. It seems that it is equally important for people to look beyond what is often called American exceptionalism.