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Sign of the Times

On a recent Wednesday evening in a basement room of Yale University’s Dow Hall, four students attempted a translation of the song “I’ll Make a Man out of You,” from Disney’s Mulan. Hands, fingers, and arms jumped, fluttered, and glided their way through the lyrics. The class broke into a fit of giggles when the professor, Jessica Tanner, forced them to re-sign the line, “Tranquil as the forest but on fire within.” Their signs for “fire,” she suggested, had been underwhelming. Her hands, fingers, and eyebrows flew vigorously upward from her chest and out into a shower of sparks as she demonstrated the proper gesture. It couldn’t have looked more fiery had she flicked open a Zippo.

Right now, Yale students can only study American Sign Language (ASL) through small not-for-credit classes offered through Yale’s Directed Independent Language Study (DILS) program. Tanner’s ASL group has been one of most popular DILS programs since it began in 2010. In recent years, she’s had to turn away prospective signers due to the program’s limited resources. But come spring, with expanded resources and administrative support, the university will offer two full-fledged, five-days-a-week ASL classes through the Linguistics Department, which petitioned the Language Study Committee last spring for the course’s approval.

Raffaella Zanuttini, the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Linguistics department and author of the proposal, says it’s no surprise that it has taken Yale so long to create a formal ASL class. Universities have been slow across the board: although the University of Rochester became the first college in the country to offer ASL as a foreign language in the 1990s, ASL has been around much longer. It’s taken two hundred years for ASL to float down to New Haven from just up the Connecticut River Valley in Hartford, Connecticut, where in 1817 a Yale graduate, with advice from then-Yale president Timothy Dwight IV, founded the American School for the Deaf (ASD). The children who came to ASD brought with them their home and local sign languages, which combined with the university’s French Sign Language to create ASL.

The path to Yale’s first-ever ASL course had enough hurdles to be a track event. It required coordination between the DILS program, the Linguistics department, the Yale College Council, and the Dean’s Office. Last spring, Kate Rosenberg, a senior Linguistics major and recent founder of the ASL at Yale club, approached Zanuttini about adding an ASL option to the Blue Book. Zanuttini soon discovered that there was also strong faculty interest in ASL, a YCC task force report showing high demand for ASL instruction, and a beloved instructor—Jessica Tanner—already teaching ASL at Yale. “It was quite a discovery,” she recounted. Zanuttini submitted a report to the Language Study Committee, the panel that oversees Yale’s foreign language offerings, which gave the program two thumbs up this past summer. The pilot program will begin this spring, and Jessica Tanner will move from DILS to a lecturer in the Linguistics department, teaching introductory and intermediate level courses. Students say they have every reason to believe her classes will make Yale a more positive and welcoming place for people with disabilities.

For Rosenberg, learning ASL has given her an opportunity to access and communicate with a rich culture that many people do not know exists. “A lot of people distinguish between little-d deaf and big-D Deaf,” she said. “Little-d deaf means that someone cannot hear; big-D Deaf is where you’re Deaf and proud of it, and you interact with the community and use signing as your main method of communication.” Tanner, who is Deaf, embeds this sort of cultural education in her classroom, as any other foreign language instructor would.

Benjamin Nodalsky, who led the YCC Disabilities Task Force last year, hopes that the ASL program will improve awareness of Deaf culture at Yale. “By introducing ASL, we’re clearing the way for more people with links to Deaf culture to come here,” he said.

Zanutinni hopes the course will dispel pernicious misconceptions about sign languages in general: “Things that we mark through intonation, for example, are marked through facial expression.” she said. “They really are languages with the same level of systematicity and richness of expression and creativity…It’s not just pantomime, and the signs aren’t just spellings of the words in spoken language.”

From the vantage of Tanner’s DILS classroom, the work of inclusion looks like four students practicing their Mulan translation. On their lyrics sheets, “Let’s get down to business to defeat the Huns” is transcribed as “HUNS, COMING, HURRY, BECOME, SOLDIERS,” which they sign in time with the music playing from a laptop. One student signs out of time with the others, and everyone cracks up. As the students’ hands leap around to debrief before rehearsing again, the classroom is silent, but not at all quiet.

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