Communication, culture unite as Mason begins American Sign Language classes

Depending on which student you ask, George Mason University’s new American Sign Language (ASL) class is challenging, fun, a little intimidating, definitely rewarding.

Take freshman psychology major Morgan Olivo, who described how ASL is not just about knowing hand gestures but about “looking at the face, the hands, the mouth, everything like that.”

Then there is Stephanie Atkins, office manager at Mason LIFE (Learning into Future Environments), who is left-handed. That is an extra hurdle because professor Aja Puopolo and the other 22 students in class are right-handed. Because ASL is delivered with one’s dominant hand, Atkins must transfer the taught movements. She also practices in a mirror at home.

Add that Puopolo allows students to speak only for the first and last 15 minutes of the 150-minute class and “it’s very intense,” Olivo said.

The classes are a first for George Mason, which allows the curriculum to fill the undergraduate foreign language requirement. Mason is one of 182 schools (as per a list from Sherman Wilcox, a linguistics professor at the University of New Mexico) to accept ASL classes that way. Mason previously did so though transfer credits.

That Mason has an in-house program is “very exciting,” said Pam Baker, director of the Division of Special Education and Human Disabilities in the College of Education and Human Development. “It’s a pretty rigorous approach.”

The classes—ASL I, II and III—were developed by professor Harolynn Wiley, director of Mason’s Region 4 Training and Technical Assistance Center, and Nancy Anderson, a family involvement coordinator at the center, who is deaf.

There is instruction in syntax and semantics—“the language basis,” as Wiley said—but also exploration of deaf culture. A paper about a prominent person in deaf history must examine how today’s technology and social change might have influenced his actions.

In ASL I, students learn basics such as finger spelling, names and colors. Sentence structure is stressed before students practice dialogue. Puopolo instructs individually as needed with help from senior geography major Daniel Berke, who is deaf. Puopolo calls him her unofficial teaching assistant.

“It’s like dancing,” Puopolo said. “You have the hand coordination, the face coordination, everything is connected with your body. You’re moving like a dance.”

The caution is that “there’s form and structure for everything,” said Suri Raut, academic coordinator for Mason LIFE, who is taking the class to be prepared to communicate with nonverbal clients. “The hand placements, the facial expressions, if you do it wrong, it means something different.”

For senior global affairs major Emily Swain, it was that dimension of ASL—“the expressive aspect of it”—that was most intimidating. But Puopolo makes the class fun, Swain said, “and the class is very supportive.”

The rigors are worth it.

Olivo said she is taking the class to better communicate with deaf members of her Live Art group. Atkins wants to communicate with her niece who has Down syndrome and is learning to sign. Swain is broadening her horizons.

Still, Raut said with a laugh, “to turn off your voice for two hours, that’s tough.”