While the number of college students studying Spanish, French and German increased only modestly from 2006 to 2009, enrolment in American Sign Language (ASL) — the fourth most-popular language — surged more than 16 per cent, according to a new report from the Modern Language Association of America (MLA).

Sign-language professors suggested various reasons for the rise. They said it reflected the growing acceptance of American Sign Language to meet college foreign-language requirements, and its usefulness as an employment credential — not only for interpreters, but also for cognitive psychologists, educators, nurses and even scuba divers.

With the deep budget cuts of the recession, some universities have cut back their language programmes. Even so, enrolment in foreign-language classes grew 6.6 per cent from 2006 to 2009 — compared with 12.9 per cent from 2002 to 2006 — according to the report, “Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2009.”

“This is a vulnerable time for language study,” said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association. “But student interest remains strong.”

Foreign-language enrolment in 2009 was 16,82,627, an all-time high. But language courses accounted for 8.6 per cent of college classes, the same as in 2006. In 1965, the percentage was 16.5.

And while undergraduate language study increased, especially at two-year institutions, graduate-school foreign-language enrolment declined 6.7 per cent from 2006 to 2009.

As in past years, Spanish accounted for more than half of all foreign-language study.

Other languages

A few languages with clear geopolitical importance had larger increases than American Sign Language: Arabic, the fastest growing, was up 46 per cent, Korean 19 per cent and Chinese 18 per cent.

After long debate about whether American Sign Language is a real language — and whether it qualifies as a foreign language — a few universities now offer a major or minor in it, and many more accept sign language for their foreign-language requirement.

More than 90,000 students enrolled in sign-language classes last year, compared with only 4,304 in 1995.

Many colleges have long waiting lists of students trying to get into introductory A.S.L. classes, a substantial share of them turning to sign language because of their previous difficulties learning European languages.

“Some students take it because when they took Spanish or French in high school, it was horrific and they think this will be better,” said Amy Ruth McGraw, who teaches at the University of Iowa, where about 200 students study sign language. “And if their problem was auditory, or the accent, this might be better. But if it was memorising vocabulary and grammar, this isn't going to be any better.”

According to the MLA, only about half the nation's colleges now include foreign-language study as a requirement for graduation, down from about two-thirds 15 years ago.

At the University of Rochester, where the language requirement has been dropped, sign-language enrolment has remained strong.

“A.S.L. is our second-largest language,” said Ted Supalla, director of Rochester's A.S.L. programme. “It gets almost 10 per cent of our undergraduates, almost equal to Spanish.”

It does not hurt that, in a time of high unemployment, the job market for sign-language interpreters is strong.

“The demand for nationally certified A.S.L. interpreters is huge, and as a freelance interpreter, you can make $40 to $60 an hour,” said Dennis Cokely, director of the A.S.L. programme at Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts.

Many students say their interest in sign language is more about the allure of communicating without spoken words.

“My generation has grown up seeing American Sign Language in television shows and movies, and it just looks so cool,” said Anne Dunn, a junior at the University of Vermont. “I started because we have a language requirement here. But sign language is so visual, so exciting, that I got hooked and kept going.”

Ms Dunn said she and others were trying to persuade the university to let them minor in American Sign Language.

Many students take aesthetic pleasure in sign language. Emily Brown, a sign-language student at Wesleyan University, talks excitedly about watching deaf poetry on YouTube, and “rhyming” words like “stars” and “socks,” whose signs share a hand shape and motion.

“I imagine myself painting pictures in the air,” said Ms Brown, a junior majoring in English, and serving as an A.S.L. teaching assistant. “It feels more poetic than other languages. It's such a great way to express things you can't quite express verbally.”— © New York Times News Service

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