The number of college students taking classes in sign language has increased an astounding 6,500 percent in the past 30 years. American Sign Language is now the third most popular language for college and university students in the U.S. after Spanish and French, according to the Modern Language Association.

Now, Virginia Tech faculty and staff can sign up to sign, too.

The Language and Culture Institute is offering free classes in American Sign Language. They are the newest addition to the institute’s popular foreign language conversation program, which also includes classes in Chinese, French, German, and Spanish.

American Sign Language is not simply English expressed through gestures, instructor Angela DeVore said. It’s a fully developed language with its own vocabulary, syntax, and grammar.

“With sign language, unlike other languages, you have to put your whole self — your whole body — into it,” said DeVore, who has been an interpreter for 30 years.

She said learning even a few conversational phrases can go a long way toward creating a more accessible, inclusive campus. “How great would it be to have that many more people who can communicate with a marginalized population? Even if it’s just, ‘How are you?’ or ‘What are you studying?’ Imagine the difference that could make to someone.”

Don Back, director of the institute, said the program exemplifies the university’s commitment to being open and inclusive.

“Studying another language increases the effectiveness of cross-cultural communication, not only in knowing words, but in developing a deeper understanding of a unique culture,” Back said. 

There are many reasons faculty and staff choose to learn another language, said Pamela Smart-Smith, who runs the program. Many want to more effectively communicate with international students in their classrooms or gain a better understanding of other cultures. Some are preparing for a vacation. Others simply want to unlock skills that have retreated to an inaccessible part of the brain.

“Also, many participants find they make meaningful personal connections and build lasting relationships with the other students in our small classes,” Smart-Smith said.

The classes meet once a week at the Language and Culture Institute, 840 University City Blvd. There is no charge, though course books must be purchased separately. For more information, go to lci.vt.edu/languages.

The institute is part of Outreach and International Affairs.

Written by Rich Mathieson