Students trickling in late to Benjamin Lewis’ class one recent morning promptly gave their excuses to their teacher before slipping into their seats. Outside, swollen storm clouds had finally burst, sending down pelting rain that slowed down the bus, one student maintained, and clogged the freeway, another pointed out.
Lewis responded with an easy smile that put the students at ease as he acknowledged that the weather this damp morning was a problem for students trying to get to class.
It’s a conversation between students and teacher that could have taken place in any classroom at UCLA, but this one took place without a single word being exchanged.
In fact, the only sounds in Lewis’ class, the first in American Sign Language (ASL) ever offered at UCLA, are the sotto voce whispers between students, spontaneous grunts and laughter shared with an expressive teacher who instantly commands attention for the way he not only "talks" with his hands, but communicates fluently with his eyes, out-sized facial expressions and body language.
Students enroll in UCLA's beginning American Sign Language class for many different reasons. In addition to fulfilling a language requirement, taking the class will help them in their careers as interpreters, genetics counselors and health care workers, some said.
A lecturer hired this year by the Department of Linguistics, Lewis is UCLA’s first deaf faculty member and a teacher of one of the fastest-growing languages offered at universities and colleges across the country. His 30 students — whom he calls ‘profoundly hearing’ with a twinkle in his eye — represent just the fortunate few who were able to snag a seat before this popular class quickly reached capacity at the start of fall quarter.
One of the lucky ones was Nic Nelson, a fifth-year student majoring in biochemistry and English, who has already used ASL with patients at the hospital where he volunteers. "He’s just a born teacher. He’s really engaging," said Nelson of Lewis, who was born deaf. Beyond the challenge of learning the vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure for a "foreign" language that’s entirely visual, students must learn to expand their concept of "words" because signs can pack in so much more meaning, expressing time and space as well, Nelson said. A forward movement, for example, expresses a future event while a backward movement indicates something in the past.
"It’s awesome, learning to add space to time, and to engage your hands, body and face — even your environment — in a system of communication," the student said. Sign language "goes way beyond information relay," Nelson said. It’s in "the realm of art form."
The ASL fairytale created by Lewis is an adaptation of "Hansel and Gretel" by Rika Lesser.
In class, all 30 pairs of eyes intently track Lewis’ hands and face as he explains a classroom exercise that requires them each to describe their morning routines in sign. Even as he signs, students’ hands are spontaneously moving, imitating his. Each week, students make video journals, videotaping themselves answering five questions using ASL. Lewis then critiques their signing and gives them feedback.
"It’s the only language where you hear with your eyes and speak with your hands," said Mariam Janvelyan, one of Lewis’ students. "It’s amazing. He makes it so much fun to learn."
Janvelyan is the external vice president of Hands On, a UCLA student organization formed two years ago by students who wanted to learn sign language and practice it on their own — long before an Academic Senate panel and faculty agreed to offer it on a two-year pilot basis. Currently, more than 200 students are on the club’s mailing list, and weekly meetings draw 20-30 students. Lewis now serves as the club adviser.
But students in the ASL class are learning more than signing. "I strongly believe that sign language needs to come from culture," said Lewis, through an interpreter. "To understand the real meaning of the language itself, you have to have an understanding of the history of the deaf." Part of that history is the decades-long struggle to preserve ASL as a language that’s given identity and a culture to a community of signers, roughly estimated at 1 million deaf people in the U.S.
It’s a struggle that Lewis’ grandmother, also born deaf, knew firsthand. When she attended a school for the deaf, she and her classmates were forbidden to use ASL by teachers who forced them to learn oralism — lip-reading and speaking — as a better way to fit into society. "She got her hands slapped when she was caught signing," Lewis said. "Students would have to sneak out into the hallways of the dorm and try to sign with other students. Imagine if you were in another country, and every time you tried to speak your native language, you were punished."
A graphic that Hands On members are considering for a club T-shirt.
Today, ASL has gained wide acceptance at K-12 schools and universities, on the theater circuit, on television, in live performances, rock concerts and public speeches. Yet the debate over whether deaf people are better off with sign language, oralism or cochlear implants still rages.
"If someone wants to have a cochlear implant, that’s fine as long as they respect the deaf community," Lewis said. "We’re a small community — a minority group that wants to preserve our language and culture. It’s all about the language and access to communication."
Lewis, who received his B.A. in communications and M.A. in sign language teaching from Gallaudet University, the nation’s most respected university for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, said he welcomes the challenge of starting UCLA’s ASL program "from scratch so that I can develop it the best way possible for students here.
"It’s my hope that someday we’ll be able to teach deaf studies here," said Lewis, who also teaches a class titled "Enforcing Normalcy: Deaf and Disability Studies" that looks at issues like oralism and audism, discrimination against the deaf.
"Learning to sign is one thing, but you really need to be immersed in the culture of the deaf, its history and the community itself to really understand what ASL is all about."