UCLA And SDSU Offer Indigenous Language Classes But Not Sign Language

October 14, 2010

Letters A, B, C and D in sign languageUniversity of California Los Angeles and San Diego State University offer classes in indigenous languages most Americans have never heard of, but they don't offer classes in American Sign Language (ASL). The Daily Bruin, UCLA's own newspaper, investigated the situation to find out why no ASL classes existed. According to Timothy Stowell, dean of the humanities division and professional linguist, it's "because no one has lobbied us for it." Stowell certainly considers ASL its own language, however, and not merely a form of English as some people argue. He simply explains that most new language courses get formed when students ask for it to be taught and can prove a high enough demand.

With 500,000 to two million people in the U.S. who know ASL, shouldn't that prove demand without students having to request it? The Los Angeles Times reports that most of the students studying Mixtec, Aymara, Quechua, and Zapotec won't travel to the small villages where these indigenous Latin American languages are actually spoken. Still, some students study them to better understand their roots. History and anthropology students may also enroll in these classes to help with research, while others do it for the adventure of learning an obscure language.

KPBS reports that Zapotec, which comes from Oaxaca at the southern tip of Mexico, is a growing language in Southern California since up to 100,000 migrants come to California from that area every year. Many of them do not speak English or even Spanish, leading to the development of Zapotec-speaking communities. Romona Perez, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at SDSU, told KPBS that "many of these kids are coming into the U.S. into our school systems and are being spoken to in Spanish, but they may not even speak Spanish." In spite of this, the Los Angeles Times reports classes at SDSU in these indigenous languages remain small, some only containing around half a dozen people.

Students at UCLA vented their frustration to the Daily Bruin over the lack of ASL classes among these other languages. One member of the football team wears a hearing aid, but doesn't know ASL. He'd like to learn it so he can speak with other hearing-impaired people who rely on signing. His football practice schedule makes it difficult for him to seek out classes at a different school in the area that may offer it.

Another student wants to become an ASL translator or teacher, but she has no way to learn the language at UCLA. Fortunately, she still intends to pursue it after graduation. Other students wish to learn ASL because they have family members or friends who use it and students who pursue a minor in disability studies often wish to study ASL.

The Daily Bruin further reports that many universities, community colleges and even high schools teach ASL, which means there's no reason it couldn't be offered at UCLA. While the school cites budget difficulties, adding an introductory ASL class would only incur the costs of developing a syllabus and transferring a teaching assistant from linguistics to an ASL section, which is far easier than finding a faculty member to teach a language almost entirely unheard of in the U.S. like some of these indigenous ones.

Compiled by CityTownInfo.com Staff


"Rise in Zapotec-Speaking People Results in New SDSU Language Course," KPBS.org, September 1, 2010, Ana Tintocalis

"Trying out indigenous languages," LATimes.com, October 11, 2010, Esmeralda Bermudez

"UCLA should offer American Sign Language," dailybruin.com, October 4, 2010, Asad Ramzanali

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