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New American Sign Language courses spell success

Suite of ASL courses expand student understanding of language and culture
By: Deborah Smyth
February 26, 2019
Instructor Nina Winiarczyk signing at the front of class

Instructor Nina Winiarczyk demonstrates the sign for “name” as she teaches her class how to use the vocabulary, syntax and grammar of American Sign Language, and helps them gain a deeper knowledge of Deaf culture. Photo credit: Alia Youssef.

Ever let your mind wander in class? Daydreaming isn’t an option in Ryerson’s new American Sign Language (ASL) classes.

“You need to be looking at the instructor and interacting,” said Kinga Zawada, chair and associate professor of the Department of Languages, Literature and Cultures. “The classes are structured into small group work, or pairs, so there’s all type of interaction, as with any language, but it’s all done in sign language, so there’s no time for note taking or maybe ‘zoning out’ and coming back to it. If you miss it, you miss it, so I’ve never seen such focus in class.”

The suite of four ASL courses launched in September 2018 in the Department of Languages, Literature and Cultures, which also offers Arabic, French, Chinese and Spanish, among other languages.

“The common misconception is that ASL is just a signed version of English, whereas ASL is a distinct language with its own syntax and grammar,” said Zawada. “It’s been developed over hundreds of years by Deaf people as a means of communication and it’s just as capable as English or any other language in communicating abstract, complex ideas, so we thought it was a natural fit.”

In September, ASL 101 was offered to full-time degree students and continuing education students, with ASL 201 being offered this semester. The professional elective course is designed for hearing students who wish to learn to communicate using ASL, and to learn more about Deaf culture.

“We believe each culture has its own way of seeing and expressing how they interact with the environment around them,” said Zawada. “So Deaf culture encompasses values, beliefs and practices that are embedded in the language, and for a comprehensive learning experience, students need to be exposed to knowledge about the culture as well as the language.”

Lead course instructor Nina Winiarczyk, who is from the Deaf community, agrees: “These courses allow students to learn that Deaf people have their own culture and their own language. We need to continue educating people on what it means to be Deaf and how to communicate with people who are Deaf.”

ASL students come from a range of degree programs, from media production and biomedical sciences to creative industries and computer science.

“When I think of career areas where our students are going to be, whether it’s educational services or public administration, health care, or social assistance, there are so many areas that we didn’t expect that seem to be needing ASL skills,” said Zawada. “Within our own program, there’s a much better understanding of Deaf culture, not just an acquisition of the language practice, so I think it’s working for all the students.”

Students benefit from the unique experience of being immersed in the ASL experience from the moment they step into class.

“From the beginning, there’s no verbal exchange whatsoever, it’s completely silent,” said Zawada. “You just hear the occasional laughter of those who are actually getting the jokes in ASL. Students are surprised that they are able to understand, even laugh at jokes, within the first class, but it’s very intuitive, actually. Students are picking it up very fast, they are very focused on not only on the facial expressions that are part of the language, but on all of the signs, the rules. One of the students told me they didn’t realize their eyes had muscles that got tired so quickly.”

Nina Winiarczyk holds a master of arts in Deaf studies: teaching sign language, and a bachelor of arts in sociology from Gallaudet University, and has extensive teaching experience. She is currently developing the curriculum for a multi-level ASL program at Ryerson, which is hoped to be the first step in a move toward an eventual Deaf studies program.

“We’re thinking of perhaps pairing with Disability Studies in the future for some kind of combined certificate with Deaf studies. We’re thinking of not just having these four courses but creating something more,” Zawada explained. “This is just the beginning.”

The initial feedback from students has been overwhelmingly positive, said Winiarczyk. “When students first join the class, they typically feel a complete shift in their ways of thinking about people who are Deaf, and express how many of their assumptions have been proven wrong. As they learn more about Deaf culture and ASL, they are surprised to see how much they didn’t know and how much there still is to learn.”

Students have told Zawada that having instructors who are part of the Deaf community makes the course even stronger because they’re exposed right away to that culture. “In terms of the curriculum, but also opening students’ minds to Deaf culture in general, I think on every level we would consider that a success.”

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