Despite Demand for Class, Harvard Ignores Sign

The third most common language in the United States is no longer part of the Harvard curriculum, despite high student demand.

Citing financial difficulties, the linguistics department has scrapped both of its American Sign Language (ASL) courses, even though both drew high CUE ratings.

Linguistics Aa and Ab, "Beginning American Sign Language," were deleted from the department's course offerings because "the funding money simply ran out," said linguistics department chair Michael S. Flier.

There is obviously interest in the former classes' topic: turnout has been enormous at a beginning ASL course offered by Phillips Brooks House (PBH), according to Tina Kim '96, chair of PBH's committee on deaf awareness.

"It broadens my horizons," said Guy Cimbalo '98, who is taking the PBH course. "It allows me to speak to a whole other segmen: of the population."


Funding for the linguistics courses had come from an external source, the Komiya American Sign Language Fund, according to Assistant Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for Academic Planning Janet H. Hatch's office.

At present, the only alternatives for students who want to take sign language courses are the PBH classes.

Both are taught by deaf instructors from the Massachusetts Committee on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (MCDHH) or the Massachusetts State Association of the Deaf (MSAD). They are open to anyone for a $35 fee.

Kim said the elimination of the two classes from the linguistics department curriculum has increased PBH's enrollment to the point of overcrowding.

"It was shocking to find the Linguistics courses gone... my introductory meeting was really packed," Kim said. "My phone has been ringing off the hook... There are a lot more interested people than usual."

"A couple of students... mentioned that they had been waiting until junior or senior year to take the [Linguistics Department] ASL class and that they're really disappointed that it's not being offered anymore," she said.

Kim said she thought more than 50 students attended the first meeting of PBH's beginning class.

Lisa Graustein '97, who enrolled in the Phillips Brooks House course, said she is disappointed with the lack of a curricular ASL course.

"It's sad...sign language is the third-most-commonly-spoken language in the United States," Graustein said. "The fact that Harvard is not offering it is upsetting."

In the 1991-92 CUE guide, Linguistics Aa drew rave reviews, receiving a rating of 4.6 out of a possible 5.

Course instructor Marie J. Philip, who is no longer at Harvard, received a 4.7 rating, and 14 out of 15 students polled rated the "course material" a perfect five.

Non-resident tutor Denise Augustine '92, who is in charge of Adams House's popular Sunday "Sign Language Table" said the courses are a significant loss.

"Everyone I knew who took the [Linguistics] class felt that it was definitely to their benefit," Augustine said. "They learned about the deaf community. They felt that sign language was a beautiful language to learn.