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Letters to Santa

May 18, 2020

Students want to take American Sign Language (ASL) classes at the University of British Columbia but many have misconceptions about sign language.

That's according to a final project in the Living Language: Science and Society course, which conducted research about UBC and other universities' ASL offerings, as well as student interest in such courses.

Fourth year commerce student Taryn Jessop, and fourth year Honours in Speech Sciences students Paris Gappmayr and Lauren Denusik, focused on ASL at UBC after the sole class on offer was cancelled for the semester, with no alternative offered.  Jessop says she was inspired by their passion for ASL, and excited to learn about Deaf culture. "I'm passionate about helping others, and giving everyone equal opportunities. I thought this project was along those lines in terms of accessibility."

Conducting research on university offerings of ASL, the group found that several universities in North America offered multiple undergraduate ASL courses. Through a survey of 48 students from different faculties, they found students who hadn't taken an ASL course previously tended to have misconceptions about sign language, including that it was a 'universal language'. As well, the majority of students indicated they would be interested in ASL classes if offered.

Initially, the group planned to write to Senate, proposing that ASL courses be offered at UBC. When they found out the Linguistics department had already submitted a complete proposal for two introductory ASL classes for Winter Term I 2020, which had passed Faculty of Arts approval and was awaiting Senate review, the group decided to instead write a letter to President Santa Ono and Senate, supporting this proposal, with their research attached. The courses received Senate approval in April.

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While a language-related course might not seem like a natural elective for a business student, Jessop says communication and language are fundamental to the discipline, from working in different teams, to spreading awareness and marketing. "It is a core element of business."

The Living Language course gave Denusik a greater appreciation for different disciplines, and the usefulness of interdisciplinary skills after graduation. Jessop says she gained an appreciation for language and how powerful it could be. "It could be a two-term course with the amount of content that could be explored."

While the course material could be repetitive for speech sciences and linguistics students, Gappmayr felt the course would be particularly useful to students outside these disciplines, particularly peers in the Faculty of Science, a field not often exposed to thinking critically about the humanities.

And how do they feel now that ASL will be offered at UBC come the September term? "I wish I wasn't graduating," says Denusik.

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Read more in Pupa versus puppies: how language can be used to manipulate and other lessons from the Living Language course

Image credit: Macy Yap

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