In a recent column, Genrietta Churbanova ’24 made a compelling argument for why the University should allow American Sign Language (ASL) classes to count for its language requirement.
The University’s current policy implicitly conveys that ASL and other sign languages are not “real languages” on par with spoken languages taught on campus, as Churbanova points out, and that Deaf culture is not worthy of study, unlike other cultures represented in cultural studies programs. These are outdated and false assumptions — ASL is a natural human language with a rich history, literature, and cultural tradition.
As one of the only deaf students on campus, I am encouraged by my hearing peers’ enthusiasm for ASL and their desire to learn more about the deaf experience. Yet I am discouraged by the slow response of the University, and especially by the implication, while perhaps unintentional, that ASL and the experiences of deaf students like me are not considered equal to other languages and experiences represented at Princeton. The University is vocal about its commitment to diversity and inclusion, but its exclusion of ASL from the language requirement says otherwise.
I recognize that Princeton has taken steps to establish an ASL sequence, and that the Program in Linguistics, which currently hosts ASL courses, has been more than supportive of the sequence. However, the lack of overarching and tangible administrative support hinders ASL’s significant potential on campus.
Above all, language credit must be granted to students taking ASL classes. Princeton falls short on this front compared to its peer institutions. As of 2019, ASL counts for the language requirement at more than 230 American colleges and universities. Six other Ivies have a language requirement, and four of them (Harvard, Yale, Penn, and Cornell) accept ASL. Princeton is the only Ivy League school to offer an ASL sequence that does not satisfy the language requirement.
Opponents may argue that ASL I and II do not meet daily, unlike other introductory language courses. This is not a reflection on the rigor and value of ASL, but a result of the University’s failure to provide sufficient staffing and resources. Since the sequence’s inception, Professor Noah Buchholz has single-handedly taught and graded all ASL courses. Only this fall was another instructor hired to help precept for ASL I. The University must continue this trend and hire additional qualified full-time instructors, particularly if the frequency of class meetings acts as a barrier to awarding language credit.
It is also essential to hire more faculty members to accommodate students’ overwhelming demand. ASL earns among the best course reviews University-wide (4.97/5 in Fall 2018) and attracts long waiting lists. According to Professor Buchholz, over 250 students applied for ASL I this fall, more than five times the class capacity. The unavoidable size limit excludes otherwise interested students from beginning the sequence, and later on, there is attrition because most students cannot afford more than a semester or two of ASL in their busy schedules when it does not satisfy the language requirement. To solve these problems, the University must grant ASL language credit and allocate more resources to the sequence as soon as possible.
A natural next step is expanding course offerings to include special or advanced topics, such as ASL literature, poetry, and theater; ASL linguistics; and Deaf history and culture. Medical ASL and legal ASL would be particularly well-suited to pre-health and pre-law students. These additional classes would not necessarily require ASL proficiency, either. A survey of American Deaf culture, for example, would be a viable option for students with or without language experience wishing to learn more about the Deaf world. Furthermore, such classes would be cross-listed under the relevant departments or programs, helping students satisfy degree and distribution requirements.
There is a similar opportunity for ASL integration in the sciences. A 2019 Microsoft Research study identified challenges to the computational processing of sign languages, such as deficiencies in datasets, computer vision, and natural language processing. The University’s large and talented pool of computer science and engineering students could, with sufficient language experience, certainly advance this emerging field.
Clearly, ASL can make meaningful academic contributions beyond language study. Indeed, it already has.
Several students, including myself, have incorporated ASL into senior theses in departments as diverse as creative writing and electrical engineering. The ASL sequence has already produced one Rhodes Scholar, Serena Alagappan ’20 of the comparative literature department, who wrote her thesis on ASL poetry and Deaf cultural arts. In the anthropology department, Megan Ormsbee ’20 wrote her thesis on Deaf identity development, and Ethan McAlpine ’21 is writing his on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Deaf community. My electrical engineering thesis involves contributing to the creation and applications of ASLNet, a novel wordnet (semantic network) for ASL, and its addition to the Princeton WordNet family.
Other Princetonians with sustained involvement in ASL are Colin Lualdi ’17, Jack Hudson ’16, and Evan Corden ’16, who, as undergraduates in 2014, founded SignSchool, an online learning platform for ASL. SignSchool won first place in the 2014 TigerLaunch competition’s Social Entrepreneurship track, and participated in Keller Center programs in subsequent years, including the eLab summer accelerator program. Today, SignSchool reaches a broad range of users through free resources and commercial products, and supports research efforts, most notably the collaborative ASLNet project, of which Princeton is part.
ASL can and does belong at the University, which needs to demonstrate that it respects ASL’s status as a natural language and recognize ASL’s contributions to scholarship by securing a place for the language and its culture on campus without further delay. It can do so by 1) allowing ASL to satisfy the language requirement, 2) allocating more resources and faculty to the sequence, and, once the first two are achieved, 3) expanding course offerings to foster increased engagement with ASL and Deaf culture.
What can community members do? Students, continue to sign up for ASL classes and keep the demand as high as ever. Petition, propose referenda, and lobby the administration to prioritize ASL through channels including USG and your academic departments. Engage scholastically with the language and culture. Participate in extracurriculars such as the Princeton University ASL Club or entrepreneurship initiatives under the Keller Center. Seek to learn from the experiences of classmates and colleagues who are deaf or have deaf friends or family members. Faculty, consider how to incorporate ASL and awareness of the deaf experience into your program or department, whether through course offerings or invited speakers.
We must recognize and continue to have conversations about the unique potential for ASL in our community. It is time for the University to treat ASL and its signers with the same respect as other languages and cultures on campus.
Elaine Wright is a senior in the electrical engineering department. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editors’ Note: This article was updated to clarify the nature of SignSchool and the ASLNet project.