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NIU students learning without speaking

DeKALB – Anyone walking by room 222 in Wirtz Hall at Northern Illinois University around noon Wednesday would have heard no noise and assumed the classroom was empty.

But then they would hear laughter and realize that 20 students, plus the instructor, were inside engaged in some serious learning. The difference between this room and the one down the hall? In room 222, students were communicating through American Sign Language.

Under the tutelage of instructor Sara Bianco, who has been deaf since birth, the level-four class did not verbally speak to communicate during the class. Instead, they used ASL – a visual language that uses hand signs and gestures.

Bianco, who has been at NIU since 2008, teaches nearly 100 students in her four classes and another instructor teaches an additional 50 students in two more classes. Since 2008, students at NIU can take ASL to fulfill their foreign language requirements, said Sue Ouellette, chairwoman for the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders at NIU. While state law now mandates it, NIU offered ASL as a foreign language option before they were required to.

And it should be a foreign language option, Bianco said, noting ASL is her first language. ASL is a language and culture that the Deaf – the capital “D” refers to the culture that regards deafness as a difference, not a disability – live in daily, she said.

“Deaf people do not view being deaf as a disability, but as a cultural attribute,” Ouellette agreed. “It’s a surprise to many students coming into the class, that anyone could find something good about being deaf.”

Depending on what study is cited, Ouellette said ASL is the third-most spoken language in the United States, behind English and Spanish. Students, therefore, are likely to be able to use ASL in their lives, she said. A wide range of students take ASL courses, she said, from education students who may have a deaf student in their classroom one day to those enrolled in the College of Visual and Performing Arts.

In order to foster the ability of the students to understand ASL, and out of respect for deaf faculty, Bianco does not permit the use of voices in her classrooms or labs. Immersion into a language is the best way to learn it, she said, and that’s what she aims to do in her classroom.

“They can talk all they want, it just has to be in ASL,” she said before class started Wednesday.

While they initially might be frustrated by that, they often aren’t able to communicate that to her, Bianco said. She noted that she uses other mediums to communicate, such as e-mails and writing on the board.

Bianco will ask students later on in the course if they were frustrated initially. And while some say they were challenged, she also knows that having them immersed from Day One means they are in the right frame of mind.

Students also are required to have five hours of Deaf events each semester, such as going to a silent dinner. At those, students go out to eat at a restaurant, and are required to not speak the entire time – even when ordering. That often results in other diners staring at them, Bianco said, which gives them “a taste of what it’s like” to not be able to hear.

And while Bianco only requires students to sign once class starts, those who gathered before class started Wednesday only used ASL once they crossed through the door.

“Once we are in this setting, we will sign,” said Arthur Wagoner. “It’s out of respect to Sara. It’s really rude to talk in front of a Deaf person, especially if you know ASL.”

Wagoner, 22 and studying psychology, said he decided to take ASL because he has a sister who is hard of hearing and he had learned some sign language when he was younger.

When he got to NIU, he had the choice of either French or ASL for his foreign language requirement, and decided knowing ASL would be more practical in his life.

Wagoner’s roommate, William Nolan, also is taking the class. He said learning ASL has taught him to think of languages differently, which in turn has helped him in his English classes.

Both said the first few weeks of class were intimidating Wagoner noted that as he continued in his classes, it became weird to leave the classroom and start verbally talking.

“It was like I had to relearn how to talk,” Wagoner said.

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