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American Sign Language for All

Students sign their way to 2nd ­language credit

“Just learning how to sign your name shows knowledge and respect about their world and way of life,” says Elizabeth ­Embser, who learned ASL at Ithaca College.

Students fluent with their fingers now get credit for their bilingual skills.
    American Sign Language’s acceptance as a high school second language is good for students — and for the million native Marylanders whose first language is not English but ASL.
    Among those students is Jonah Laughlin of Shady Side.
    “Foreign languages are hard for me,” says the rising seventh-grader at Southern Middle School. “A language that makes me use my hands fits my personality better. I think it’s a good path for me and gives me more options than just the typical French or Spanish classes.”
    Jonah, of the class of 2022, begins studying American Sign Language this fall.
    Beginning with the class of 2017, Maryland will certify high school grads who speak ASL as well as English with the Seal of Biliteracy. We are the 18th of 20 states to adopt the academic honor.

“A language that makes me use my hands fits my personality,” says rising ­seventh-grader Jonah Laughlin, signing “I love you.”

    The seal opens career paths along with promoting biliteracy. With more than 1.2 million deaf or hard of hearing people in Maryland alone, the need for interpreters is great — and so are job opportunities.
    American Sign Language is the fastest growing language in the states with more than 500,000 signers. Like other languages, it has its own grammatical structure and changes with location and generation. The new seal of approval also spotlights the value of sign language — and narrows the gap between the deaf and hearing communities.
    That was the experience of Elizabeth Embser, of Severna Park, who learned ASL at Ithaca College.
    “I learned that sign language is the best way to communicate with the deaf, and the entire deaf community,” Embser says. “Just learning how to sign your name shows knowledge and respect about their world and way of life.”
    Learning ASL is a challenge because it combines facial expressions and body language. Yet children can learn to sign three to six months earlier than most learn English. Researchers also found that when ASL is taught alongside primary English, a child’s vocabulary and speech blossom.
    On a bigger scale still, the Seal of Biliteracy widens global interaction. That’s a point that weighed for the Maryland General Assembly’s approval of the bill this year.
    “Cultural competency and proficiency in a foreign language are skills that are sought by employers,” wrote Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce President Georgette Godwin in a letter of support to the House Ways and Means Committee. “Creating a Seal that is recognized in the marketplace will further incentivize proficiency in a foreign language.”
    To earn the seal, students must pass a test proving their fluency. For ASL, the test includes assessment of interpersonal signed exchange, presentations signing and demonstration of understanding such as interpreting a signed lecture.