In silence, the beauty of a new language emerges at Yale

Yale is now offering its first ever American Sign Language class — an immersion course in which students are expected to communicate entirely in sign.
Jessica Tanner using American Sign Language in a Yale classroom.

Jessica Tanner is the lector for Yale’s first-ever for credit American Sign Language courses. (Photo credit: Kendall Teare)

It’s a few minutes before 9:25 a.m. when students quietly shuffle into a basement classroom in Dow Hall. While it’s not surprising that these students are quiet at that time on a Monday morning, what is surprising is that the silence will continue throughout their 50-minute class.

The class, “American Sign Language 110,” is an immersion course where no spoken English is allowed. Students are expected to either sign or fingerspell their comments or questions to the instructor without using their voice.

These students, some of whom are new to the study of American Sign Language (ASL), are given an insight into the deaf culture that previously was only available to them via an undergraduate club or a Directed Independent Language Study (DILS) course through Yale’s Center for Language Study. Students taking these DILS offerings do not receive any credit for their efforts.

ASL 110, and the more advanced ASL 120, are being offered this spring for the first time in Yale history as part of a three-semester pilot program to introduce the language in for-credit courses.

Enrollment for the ASL courses was capped at 14, in part, because the interaction between instructor and student is essential to learning. Forty-five students showed up for the first day of ASL 110.

It is a good problem to have,” says Kate Rosenberg ’18, a linguistics major who was instrumental in getting ASL added to the Yale curriculum. Rosenberg had a lifelong interest in ASL and approached Raffaella Zanuttini, professor in the Department of Linguistics, with the idea of giving Yale students the opportunity to receive credit for taking ASL and to count it towards their language requirement. Rosenberg participated in the DILS offerings and co-founded an ASL club on campus as resources for people who wanted to learn ASL while she waited to see if ASL would become an official course at Yale.

When the room continued filling up, that made me realize that the interest in ASL courses at Yale was high,” says Jessica Tanner, lector for Yale’s American Sign Language courses who previously taught the DILS offerings at Yale. “I was nervous for the first 10 minutes, but then eased up once I saw all the smiling faces — so eager to learn! It also gave me a good feeling of how much interest there is in ASL and for the deaf culture.” 

Two students practicing sign language in a classroom.
Students Auguste White and Woesha Hampson-Medina (background) practice their signs. (Photo credit: Kendall Teare)

The undertaking was a collaborative one. Over the years, the number of students who expressed an interest in taking ASL through DILS surged considerably. The Yale College Council Disability Task Force issued a report last February recommending that Yale offer formal courses in ASL. Zanuttini, who is also the director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Linguistics, wrote a document enumerating and discussing the reasons why ASL should be added as a subject of study to the Yale curriculum. She submitted it first to the Language Study Committee and then to the Teaching Resource Advisory Committee. These committees supported the idea of bringing ASL to Yale and provided resources for it, respectively. At that point, specific course proposals for ASL 110 and ASL 120 were submitted to the Course of Study Committee and to the Yale faculty for approval. All along, the director of the Center for Language Study, Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, and associate dean of Yale College George Levesque played a crucial role in helping this new subject of study at Yale come to fruition.

An awful lot of people were very happy and very eager to see this happen,” says Rosenberg, adding that as a result of the collaborative nature of this initiative, ASL at Yale has a “community feel” to it.

I was heartened by the spirit of cooperation that I found in the process. The students were delighted that we listened to them. The faculty were very enthusiastic about ASL, and the administrators have been incredibly helpful. Doing something with such a spirit of enthusiasm and collaboration is really wonderful,” adds Zanuttini.

I’m so excited that this is happening,” says Rosenberg. “When we started to push for this, we did think it was going to happen but I didn’t think it would be while I was here.”

American Sign Language was at one time considered to be akin to pantomime, and it was thought that people were just spelling out the letters in the words, explains Zanuttini. It wasn’t until the 1960s that linguists began to study the properties of sign languages and realized that they have the same kind of systematicity and complexity that is present in all natural languages.

Most people assume that ASL is a language based on words; whereas it is not — it is a language based on concepts,” says Tanner. “The moving hands, along with facial expression, makes ASL a very interactive language. In my classes I also include regional differences in some signs so that the students will be able to tell where a deaf person is from by their variation in ‘accents.’ I absolutely am loving the experience of teaching at Yale and am fortunate to have such great students to teach.”

A student using sign language beside her instructor.
Cassandra Lignelli (left) describes her picture activity. (Photo credit: Kendall Teare)

There are many ways in which the study of ASL enriches a Yale student’s education, says Zanuttini. “It is a dive into a new culture and into a community with which we are not usually able to interact. It certainly will make students better citizens of the United States and the world. I also think it will raise awareness of what life is like for those whose perception of the world is different from ours. I wish I could take it!”

Adding ASL to the curriculum is also helping to achieve some of the overall goals for the university, says Zanuttini — in particular, that of creating a more inclusive Yale. “We are giving our students access to and awareness of another sector of the population that is not normally represented at Yale.”

We offer so many languages here at Yale that it seems unfair not to offer the main language of many people — an entire culture really — who live in our country,” says Rosenberg, “even more so than other languages; because it is an American language it makes sense for it to be taught at American schools.”

ASL has a long history at Yale. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, an American who went to France and brought back their visual/manual methods for deaf education to establish ASL, was a Yale graduate (B.A. 1805, M.A. 1808). When Gallaudet returned to Connecticut from his trip to France with his friend Laurent Clerc (a deaf Frenchman fluent in French sign language), they stopped in New Haven on their way from New York to Gallaudet’s home in Hartford. While in New Haven they received advice from then-president of Yale Timothy Dwight on how to appeal to New Englanders’ religious sense of charity in raising funds for their new school. They were successful, and the school became what is now the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, the first school for deaf students in the Americas and the birthplace of American Sign Language.

For Tanner, the thing she is most looking forward to in her new role as lector of ASL is to teach Yale students about her language. “The visual utilization of space, body language, and facial expressions are what completes ASL,” she says. “I love adding my own perspectives to make the courses fun for the students. I strongly believe that when the students — and teacher of course — are having fun, it makes learning easier. I am also looking forward to enriching young minds about the beauty of ASL; as well as help them communicate with deaf people.”

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