Silence is golden

On Friday evenings at The Coffee Bean in Mission Valley, the regular mosaic of sounds — hissing espresso machines, ambient traffic noise — lacks the usual verbal banter. Instead, members of the American Sign Language community tentatively taste their late-night lattes under the red canvas eaves of the coffee franchise as they sign to one another. Bringing together a varied coalition of deaf individuals, interpreters seeking to improve their craft, and students of ASL from local high schools and universities, it is an inaudible setting but by no means a silent one.

The weekly Deaf/ASL community coffee night has attracted members of the UCSD undergraduate body like linguistics major and junior Rebecca Chow, who cites the ASL program as a determining factor in her enrollment at UCSD. Chow also serves as president of the ASL Club on campus.

Close to her desk in the club’s office, thick manuals marked “ASL” lean against a miniaturized refrigerator with rows of ASL pictograph magnets monopolizing the space. “I’m just fascinated by the language, and I really enjoy signing and I love being involved in the Deaf community,” Chow said enthusiastically. “It’s just really interesting for me to learn about this different culture that’s all over America but kind of hidden.”

While less than a handful of deaf graduate students attend UCSD, the campus does offer several services including interpreters and captioning, as well as access to note-takers through the Office for Students with Disabilities. “The population of deaf students is fairly small compared to other ethnic minorities,” said communication professor Carol Padden, who is also deaf. Padden and her husband Tom Humphries, a communication associate professor at UCSD, have written four books about ASL, including “Deaf in America: Voice from a Culture.”

Padden noted the rise in attaining credentials at various education programs in order to work with deaf children, which in turn, encourages deaf students interested in pursuing these studies. “Programs that are targeted to areas where deaf students might work tend to attract more deaf students,” Padden said.

In the meantime, a vibrant constituency of ASL scholars and students at UCSD has already begun to plumb the depths of Deaf culture and its newly developing 21st century concerns. In the past two years, the ASL community has earned the attention of the Modern Language Association, which, according to Padden, conducted a study to determine which foreign languages universities retain and drop from their educational docket.

“They found that two languages are the fastest growing in terms of being added to foreign language programs: American Sign Language and Arabic,” Padden said. “A lot of departments at colleges and universities are interested in comparative studies of sign language and spoken language. So ASL has been added at a very rapid rate.”

While the study of ASL operates as a common endeavor among the University of California campuses, Padden indicates that there is a distinction to be made of UCSD’s ASL program in its unique approach to teaching the language through grammar, conversational components and lab requirements that equip and send students into the field.

“It’s nice to see ASL included in the same kind of curricular structure that they have in Spanish, French, German and other foreign languages,” Padden said. “I think students who come out of the first quarter or the first year are very good. I’m impressed with the program. I know it works.”

Students who feel that in-class exposure to ASL requires a supplement or does not satisfy their appetite for the language are welcomed to attend San Diego’s weekly deaf/ASL coffee nights. Venues like the Coffee Bean attract as many as 40 to 50 signing individuals who converse with one another through sign across a range of topics as varied as linguistic differences between dissimilar sign languages globally to light-hearted discussions about the perfect slice of chocolate cake.

As a member and scholar of the Deaf community, ASL has a particular urgency for Padden, whose research interests broach medical, ethical and linguistic realms of the present age. Recent medical discourses on genetic engineering and the possibilities of cochlear implants in retrieving sound have excited her interest. “There’s a lot of medical interest in deaf people as a group,” Padden said. “So how do we respond to that? Do we have anything to say about our role as such in medical studies? For what purpose, for what goal? It’s a very complex discussion.”

Another recent scholarly project brings Padden to Israel twice a year to chart the emergence of a relatively new sign language in the country in order to use this new model as the groundwork for understanding the general properties of human language. Her study draws from correlations and differences between ASL — which has existed for approximately 200 years — and Israel’s own emergent version, which “is about 70 years old, so we can still watch the language grow,” Padden said.

For Padden, language serves as the fundamental interest from which her culture derives. “Language is a key part of how deaf people define themselves,” she said. “In terms of disabilities, different issues of identity and definition [arise]. … A great deal of our identity is wrapped up in our language — ASL poetry, literature, narrative, story-telling.”

Last Thursday in Geisel Library’s Seuss room, literature professor Michael Davidson discussed Padden’s interests of language and culture in his special lecture: “Tree Tangled in Tree: Re-Siting Poetry Through ASL.” He represents the growing interest amongst intellectuals in bringing ASL, as a viable and rich form of expression, into the fore of academic, if not social, consciousness. Speaking with the help of an interpreter to a cadre of literature specialists, he drew his lecture to a close: “In an era when poetry in the academy has fallen on hard times, ASL performance offers an opportunity to revivify the art, not by adding increments to an existing canon but by rethinking metaphors of vision upon which poetry has been erected.”

In his discussion of the renewal of such cultural productions as poetry, Davidson referred to youth culture and newly evolving deaf-poetry slams as cultural sites that require exploration. He has also taught an undergraduate course about disabilities in literature and remarked mid-way through his lecture, “[UCSD is] a good place to do ASL studies … ASL often doesn’t get acknowledged in these public forums.”

Chow is also working steadily to attract a broader interest in ASL. “ASL is not a largely publicized thing in general,” she said. “I think it would be cool for more people to know about it.” Her plans include encouraging the participation of a larger demographic to the ASL Club in which nonsigning individuals can still attend and participate in cultural events.

The ASL community night has, in its own right, sprung a culture around coffee, language exchange and an older generation of signers instructing the younger. By the end of the evening, Robert Ellison, with a hearing aid snugly attached to his ear, is surrounded on all fronts by a column of eager hearing students from Ramona High School. Confusion has crept into the conversation as someone dimly mutters in the back, “the eyebrows are part of the grammar, that’s what makes it so hard.” He gestures with greater animation to the searching eyes of his companions and finally invokes the universal code: laughter.