Even the most passionate football fans might be surprised to hear that the infamous football huddle began at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world’s only university that communicates primarily in American Sign Language (ASL).
According to the university’s website, in 1984, Gallaudet’s quarterback, Paul Hubbard, wanted to be able to communicate with his team without his opponents seeing. He had the offense form a tight circle so he could sign to them privately, creating the huddle technique seen across football fields today.
“I mean, everyone knows the football huddle,” sophomore intelligence analysis major Jenna Sliman said. “I think it’s just amazing how much deaf culture is in our own culture.”
Sliman is a member of JMU’s American Sign Language Club, whose members recently went on a field trip to Gallaudet. There, they learned fun facts, visited the “signing Starbucks” — the first ASL-centric Starbucks — and immersed themselves within the deaf and signing community.
“I loved that trip,” junior biology major Victoria Tartivita said. “I really think that the ASL club provides opportunities such as those so that you can really get a feel for the deaf community and really try to understand what it’s like.”
ASL Club is an organization that accepts anyone from the deaf or hearing communities as members regardless of previous experience. Club president and senior communications major Bailey Kramarik says she wants to use her position to teach, share and learn ASL while also understanding the culture and history behind it. She said she’s using her time in the position to focus on educating herself and her members about the deaf community and its culture.
“It’s important that we kind of amplify their voices and show their videos and use resources from them,” Kramarik said. “In our meetings, we try to do a 50/50 split … Part of it is teaching signs like vocabulary words, and the other part is highlighting deaf voices, teaching deaf culture [and] watching relevant videos and documentaries.”
A typical meeting is an hour long, once a week. The first half hour is teaching signs and the second half hour is applying them using activities and games. Sliman said the past two meetings were centered around deaf culture and educating ASL club members.
ASL is used by 250,000-500,000 of Americans according to “American Sign Language” by Baker-Shenk and Cokely; The Modern Language Association of America reported it to be the third-most studied language in U.S. colleges in 2016. Kramarik suggested hearing individuals learn ASL to bypass potential divides in future encounters.
“I hear people tell me all the time, ‘Oh, I wish I knew ASL; that’s so cool,’” Kramarik said. “Then go; go do it and go learn it. Start learning because there is absolutely no drawback for you to educate yourself and get to communicate with other types of people, and it could end up making a big impact on their lives.”
Sliman has found that ASL is a skill that can help her beyond JMU and into her professional life.
“I didn’t realize ASL was so much more than just a language,” Sliman said. “I’ve found that learning how to sign has made me more cognizant of what I say and how I say it.”
Currently, ASL Club members are working to give the language a more established role on campus. Kramarik said there’s currently one ASL class taught at JMU — it’s offered as an elective and taught by a hearing, non-native speaker out of a book.
“Can you imagine, like, somebody who has no experience in, maybe, Hispanic culture and maybe read a book or two about Spanish, stand up there and teach a Spanish class?” Kramarik said. “JMU would never do that for any other language, so there’s no reason why they’re doing it for ASL.”
JMU’s Director of Communications Mary-Hope Vass didn’t respond to The Breeze’s request for comment on Kramarik’s statement.
Kramarick believes that by offering just a few more ASL classes, they could make a huge difference.
“I can’t imagine the change they would be able to make — not only in the JMU community, but once we graduate and go all over the country and the world, even,” Kramarik said.
However, JMU does make an effort to help the deaf community in some ways. Tartivita is deaf — she uses cochlear implants and is registered with JMU’s Office of Disability Services (ODS). She said her experiences with ODS have been “phenomenal” and that JMU provides all of the services she needs. She also said she appreciates how JMU has started to use closed captions on their released videos.
“That helps me out so much more than you could imagine,” Tartivita said. “I may be able to hear, but audio through videos is still really difficult to process and understand, so with captions, it makes it so much easier … It makes me so happy.”
ASL Club encourages students to become part of the organization and learn more about ASL and the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. They’ll continue to celebrate the language and advocate for those within the communities surrounding it, Kramarick said.
ASL has its own grammar, syntax and every other component of a language.
“All around the world, signed languages are not lesser than spoken languages just because they are nonverbal,” Kramarik said. “Unfortunately, JMU hasn’t really made much progress — that’s where we’re at — but that does leave a lot of room for growth in the future and, hopefully, soon.”
Contact Sarah Connor at [email protected]. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.