Not to bad-mouth English, but there are certain times when words are bound to fail you. That's when it is time to turn to American Sign Language. "There are a lot of situations where visual language can be helpful," notes Dirksen Bauman, a professor of ASL and deaf studies at Gallaudet University, rattling off a list including noisy stadiums, concerts, through windows, and underwater (and, of course, when communicating with deaf people).
No one has been able to pinpoint the driving force behind the nationwide ASL boom—according to the Modern Language Association, the number of students enrolled in ASL classes in higher education institutions leapt 432 percent between 1998 and 2002, and has since continued to rise. Bauman says it can't hurt, though, that modern society has become more visual, and ASL appeals to people who are kinesthetic learners. "I always gestured a lot, so I felt like it fit," he says. Harnessing the power of movement can make communication more expressive and even more precise.
Like a dance. Just like French or any other spoken language, there's a complex grammatical structure to learn, but instead of struggling with perfecting one's accent, the challenge of ASL is to incorporate facial expressions and body language. To Marilyn Daniels, a professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State University, ASL has always looked like a dance. "I was attracted by the beauty of it," she recalls.
It's the physical nature of ASL that makes it an appealing language for a range of ages. With sign, infants can learn to communicate with their parents months before they have the ability to vocalize their thoughts. For seniors, it encourages them to keep their brains sharp and their fingers nimble. And for folks in the middle, it's a smart way to compensate for too many years of pumping up the volume. "All of those baby boomers in the next 10 years are going to be in dire need of it," predicts Daniels.