Signing up for Sign Language
Science Center 110, Sunday afternoon: while most students were still digesting their Veritaffles, a few sat at rapt attention in this classroom to learn a new language— with no intention of fulfilling an academic requirement.
This semester-long class, offered by the Harvard College Committee on Deaf Awareness, teaches American Sign Language to members of the community with a discount for Harvard students. Instructor Manuel D. Martin, who has been an ASL teacher since 1994, stood at the front of the room and signed out the alphabet as his students dutifully copied his hand formations.
“You can see those fingernails on the letter A,” said Martin as he signed the letter to the class. “If they’re not clean, we send you out.”
Each person then signed their name to the class, some furrowing their brows as they tried to remember the letters. Martin watched closely, making corrections where necessary, and then translated each name into English on the blackboard. His dynamic personality kept the class moving, eliciting the occasional outburst of laughter even as he taught the number system and explained the etymology of various signs.
An uncommon skill, ASL is useful in many contexts. “I actually had a deaf client in an employment civil rights clinic, and communication was challenging,” said Stacey E. Kennard, a 3L at Harvard Law School, when asked why she attended the class. She explained that she also hoped to gain another skill that she could use to communicate with a wider group of clients. Siena R. Leslie ’12, who coordinates the class, decided to learn ASL for its linguistic value.
At one point, Martin outlined a sash across his chest, his hand forming the letter “Y”—a sign for “Yale.” Martin said, “Here’s a sign you shouldn’t know.” He knew his audience.