Sign Language

What Keeps ASL Students Coming Back?

What Keeps ASL Students Coming Back?

For you teachers out there, it will come as no surprise that, on occasion, there are ulterior motives for taking ASL.

I know, crazy talk. Who’da thunk?

For some students, ASL seems like an easy way to meet their foreign language requirement for graduation. For that one guy in the back row, he heard that this was where all the good-looking females hang out. For others, they may have deaf classmates or family members, and they want to communicate better.

For most, they probably aren’t thinking about other benefits of ASL classes like reducing their chance of Alzheimer’s, or improving their creativity, attention, or decision-making skills. (Which are all pretty cool benefits, right?)

Learning ASL takes commitment, and perhaps, these ulterior motives undermine the commitment required to learn ASL.

But maybe the important question is not so much about why students take ASL classes in the first place, but why they stay.

Ultimately, what is it about taking an ASL class in college that makes a person fall in love with sign and transition from being an annoying novice into perhaps a participant, interpreter, ally and advocate for not only sign language but the Deaf community?

Here at GoReact, we have an ASL team of 8—4 Deaf, 2 CODA, and 2 hearing interpreters (and a knot of hearing folks who are learning). Of those 8, several of them teach at the university level.

So, I asked a few of them about their classes and their students. What matters most?

“I think there’s an it factor that some people latch onto. I spoke about this recently at Street Leverage. In my presentation, I broke the it factor down into a formula. I know, I know, formulas make my head hurt too. But it’s a simple way to gauge commitment, temperament, and fit for students who ultimately give back to the Deaf community in the right way. The best interpreters embody this.”

“Solid classroom fundamentals help me take the wide-eyed novices who show up in class on day one and transform them into people who get and love sign language and Deaf culture. These basics help me accomplish a mission of exporting Deaf culture and understanding of deaf issues to natives of the hearing world.”

“Language isn’t the only thing learned in my ASL classes. I like to think that taking a language class is like taking Psychology, Sociology, Linguistics, Anthropology and Literature, all in one. In the classroom, we create an environment that mimics the behaviors and values of the Deaf Community. In that process of learning ASL and Deaf Culture, my students discover and redefine themselves, how they relate to others, ultimately increasing their world-view. Above all, I emphasize CONNECTIONS. I’m constantly asking students to relate to the topics of ASL and Deaf Culture to themselves so they can see the greater applications to other parts of their lives. This is what true learning is all about.”

The following four tips will help you help those ASL students who are committed and want to continue to learn sign language and about Deaf culture.

1. Prioritize immersion

Make sure your students recognize the importance of signing all the time and lead by example through teaching the class with as little English as possible.

2. Get to the why

Have your students ask themselves why they want to learn ASL.

Contextualizing their commitment to ASL and Deaf and signing communities will help students understand how to be advocates and allies of the Deaf and ASL.

3. Emphasize real experiences

Encourage your students to take the time to explore the Deaf community to increase their understanding of Deaf experience and Deaf culture.

Each of those individual, personal interactions adds to an ASL student’s understanding of and appreciation for Deaf culture and community.

4. Remember the Golden Rule

If your students plan to interpret, remind them to interpret as they would like to be interpreted for.

For those who don’t stick around, your ASL classes can benefit them a lot.

Dan Roitman’s Huffington Post article “Why It Makes More Sense Than You Know To Learn a Second Language” outlines five reasons for learning a second language.


“In recognizing how sentences are constructed in a second language, you can become more aware of how they’re arranged in your first language. That more conscious approach can help you clean up your writing and your speech and help you communicate more clearly.”

Your ASL students can communicate better in their first language as they study ASL. That means as they develop ASL fluency, your students develop their first language fluency— two birds with one stone.


“This superior ‘attention, inhibition, and encoding of sound,’ as the researchers put it, can help you better focus on what a client, boss, or employee is saying.”

Learning ASL helps students develop their ability to pay attention amid distractions of any variety.

This is a super valuable skill in any classroom, but, perhaps more importantly, developing attention will also benefit students in their future careers and relationships.


Regarding second language learning and creativity, Roitman writes, “A study published last year found that learning a foreign language enhanced people’s fluency, elaboration, originality, and flexibility, the four scales measured by the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking.”

Creativity is a hot topic in a lot of discussions, especially in the classroom and workplace. As your students study ASL, they naturally increase their creativity which will help them succeed in other classes and think originally and out-of-the-box in their career.

Mental health

“In a study of 24 million dementia patients worldwide, many of whom also had Alzheimer’s, researchers found that the patients who spoke more than one language had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years after their monolingual counterparts.”

Roitman explains that learning a second language strengthens your brain’s executive control center. That exercise is believed to buffer the onset of Alzheimer’s.

ASL boosts brain control—who doesn’t want that?!

Decision making

“When considering [a] problem in a non-native tongue, subjects in the study demonstrated ‘enhanced deliberation’ based more on cold hard logic.”

As your students begin to consider problems in ASL, they’ll be forced to slow down their decision making process, allowing them time to more objectively make a choice.

And that will carry over into their other decision making processes.

Some of your classroom and students make up a part of the future of ASL interpreting, ASL instruction, and ASL appreciation—but some don’t.

Regardless, though, teaching ASL benefits all students at all levels, which really boils down to one big point: teaching ASL is just as important as you always thought.