November 6, 2022

SWASING | ASL at Cornell: It’s More Than a Language

Print More

In high school, I took two semesters of Spanish, the only language offered by my school. My high school didn’t require a language, but one of the local colleges waived language requirements if you had taken two courses of the same language in high school. So, I trudged through two mind-numbing Spanish classes full of memorization and regurgitation, coming out of it knowing one more sentence in Spanish than when I had started: “¿Puedo ir al baño?” which translates to “Can I go to the bathroom?” 

Imagine my dismay when I realized I would not be attending college locally, my Spanish woes were for nothing and I would once again be required to face the horror of studying a language. I knew right away that language would not be Spanish. As I searched through Cornell’s course roster, I discovered the option of American Sign Language (ASL) classes. It was a relatively new course offering at the time and had just been approved to count towards the foreign language requirement in Arts & Sciences. I had always been curious about ASL, and the prospect of learning a language so unique and practical — and, I’ll admit, so different from Spanish — appealed to me. I enrolled in ASL 1101 during my very first Cornell pre-enroll, and since then my life has never been the same. 

For context, all the ASL professors at Cornell are Deaf. (Deaf is written with a capital D to denote cultural Deafness and involvement in the Deaf community, rather than simply not being a hearing individual.) When I showed up to class the first day, there was an interpreter present to help us while my professor reviewed the syllabus and class expectations. After that, the class was fully in ASL; there was no interpreter or spoken language. Daunting, sure, but I was excited to dive in. Learning in a fully immersive class setting enabled me to understand and retain the language far better than I ever had in high school Spanish, where we spent most of the time speaking in English. I am far more confident in my ASL skills than I ever was in Spanish, and I can do a lot more than ask to go to the bathroom. 

ASL proved to be an excellent setting to meet people at Cornell as well. As with many beginner language classes, my first ASL class focused on introductions, talking about family and where you are from and generally working on basic conversation skills. This allowed me and my classmates to get to know each other and form friendships. Many of us went on to take several more ASL classes together, and I have valued the relationships I’ve formed with my peers and professors each semester. Ironically, after initially dreading the language requirement at Cornell, I continued taking ASL even after completing the required three semesters because I loved the language and the community so much. 

In addition to learning the language, students in ASL classes at Cornell are taught the basics of Deaf culture and history. After completing the first four ASL language classes, there are also classes available in Deaf culture, Deaf literature and Deaf art, film and theater. As students advance through the ASL courses, they move on from basic conversational skills to stimulating conversations about language access, cultural values, education policy and more. The available courses grow each year as ASL becomes more popular among the Cornell community — and for good reason. 

Taking ASL has opened a whole new world of rich culture and community for me that I had previously never even known existed. I have been able to take part in several opportunities outside the classroom as well, enabling me to use my language skills in a real-world setting. These opportunities include attending several ASL lecture series events, enjoying a Deaf comedian’s stand-up routine and watching famous Deaf poets take the stage in various Cornell auditoriums. 

ASL classes have also provided me with a lot of practical knowledge and skills that are important in a world that values inclusivity. I have a greater understanding of appropriate ways to interact with the Deaf community and what Deaf children need to be successful (hint: the answer is access to signed languages!). I also have learned a lot about Deaf gain, which is a term for how the whole world benefits from the Deaf community. One example of this is the closed captioning on all Netflix shows, which is a result of a legal battle between Netflix and the National Association for the Deaf. Most importantly, learning ASL has allowed me to communicate with a whole community of intelligent and talented people. For that I will always be thankful. Enrolling in American Sign Language classes at Cornell has been the single best decision of my academic career. 

Halle Swasing (she/her) is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]Goes Without Swasing runs every other Sunday this semester.