Nov. 29, 2001
Vol. 21 No. 6

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    ASL classroom to add Web camera to its instructional base

    By Carrie Golus
    News Office

    Drucilla Ronchen (with glasses, seated) observes some of her students in the American Sign Language class, which has recently received a $10,000 technology grant from Ameritech.

    Students enrolled in American Sign Language classes will soon have the technology necessary to communicate with their instructor outside the classroom via a Web camera. Earlier this month, Ameritech awarded the College a $10,000 grant for innovative uses of technology in the classroom. The grant is earmarked for the ASL program, part of the Department of Linguistics.

    “Our goal is to improve students’ ASL skills and let them practice via video-conferencing and other ways,” Drucilla Ronchen, ASL instructor, wrote in an e-mail interview.

    ASL requires the instructor to evaluate students’ gestures personally––a time-consuming process. An experimental solution to this problem, which the grant will pay for, is digital video recording. Students will be able to record themselves completing assignments, then turn in their work by posting it to a Web site. After the assignments are graded, students can then correct their work by making changes to the videos. At the end of the year, Ronchen will have a growing library of the best student-produced video streams, which can be available to future ASL students and other institutions where ASL is taught.

    The grant also will allow Ronchen to hold informal office hours in an innovative way. Currently, she and her students communicate outside class through e-mail, but when students need visual input to clarify any difficulties, they must wait until they can meet with Ronchen in person. With the grant money, the University plans to set up a Web camera communication system between campus computer labs and Ronchen’s home. Students will then be able to send Ronchen an instant message to arrange a Web camera session.

    Networking Services and Information Technologies and Language Laboratories and Archives have assisted with the planning and implementation of these initiatives and will be providing ongoing support for Ronchen and her projects.

    As well as instruction in sign language, Ronchenís classes incorporate many activities and events within the deaf community. “You can’t learn ASL without deaf culture,” Ronchen said by e-mail. “Without deaf culture, ASL is worthless.” In addition to the field trips that already are part of Ronchen’s course, the grant will pay for video conferencing with deaf communities and other institutions that offer ASL.

    Since the early 1990s, undergraduates have been allowed to take ASL to fulfill their language requirement. Among schools in the Consortium for Language Teaching and Learning, which includes the Ivy League universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Chicago, this is extremely unusual. “Few schools in the consortium offer ASL. Fewer still allow courses in ASL to satisfy a language requirement,” said Stephanie Latkovski, Associate Dean of the College for International and Second Language Education.

    The first for-credit ASL course, co-taught by Ronchen and John Goldsmith, Professor in Linguistics, was offered in 1990. Since then, interest in ASL, both at the University and at schools across the country, has increased sharply. “Many more students are becoming interested in learning ASL,” Ronchen explained. “Many say they feel it is time to learn deaf culture and ASL, because it’s part of American culture.”

    Goldsmith added, “Studying ASL means learning about a culture that exists everywhere, but which is invisible to us until we learn sign. You know that there are Chinese people in Chicago, and you can go to Chinatown to eat Chinese food. You probably wouldn’t know who the deaf people are in Hyde Park, or where to go to meet them or learn about their poetry. ASL is an introduction to a cultural world that was there all along but that students didnít know about.

    But even as ASL is becoming more widespread, misconceptions about sign language remain––such as the idea that it is “English with gestures ” or that hearing people invented signing. “ASL is not an artificial language,” Goldsmith said. “It is a member of a language family that includes French Sign Language, Irish Sign Language and Spanish Sign Language, but does not include, for example, British Sign Language or Chinese Sign Language.” Linguists have traced ASL ’s roots back to 18th-century Paris, where a community of deaf people developed one of the earliest-known true sign languages.

    ASL ’s grammar is very different from English grammar, with a rich linguistic structure that parallels spoken languages, Goldsmith explained. “From a linguistís point of view, it shares some grammatical features with Chinese, others with African languages and so on. Not because it inherited those features, it ’s just a result of the wide range of grammatical possibilities that languages can take advantage of. ”

    Peter Patrikis, Executive Director of the Consortium for Language Teaching and Learning, said, “Interest in ASL is increasing significantly throughout the consortium, and we are all looking forward to following the progress of the project at Chicago. We are hopeful that our sister institutions can build upon the achievements of the Ameritech grant. ”