American Sign Language, or ASL, is used by deaf people in the United States and Canada. ASL is often considered the lingua franca among deaf people throughout the world, though most countries have their own signed languages. ASL is not simply a signed version of English. It is considered its own language, with rules and a grammatical structure different from English. Most universities that offer ASL classes or degree programs keep them housed in the linguistics, education or social work departments, but some universities offer bachelors degrees in ASL or deaf studies within their own department. Students earning a degree in deaf studies usually need some competency in ASL before entering the major.
Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., is the only university for the deaf in the United States. It is widely recognized as the world resource on American Sign Language. It offers bachelor's degrees and minors in both ASL and deaf studies. At Gallaudet, all undergraduate classes are taught in ASL, so students must have a solid foundation in the language. Most undergraduate students at Gallaudet are deaf or hard of hearing. Graduate education and continuing education programs are often open to those who do not yet know ASL.
In addition to studying ASL, a great way to become fluent is to converse and study with others who know the language. A few universities in the country besides Gallaudet have both large deaf populations and offer ASL degree programs. The Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) houses the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID). The university has about 1,300 deaf students. The school offers a degree in ASL-English Interpretation, which requires some competency in ASL before you start the program. The school also offers a Deaf Cultural Studies/ASL certificate. California State University Northridge, or CSUN, is a "deaf-friendly" public university in Los Angeles, California, and is home to The National Center on Deafness. The school has 200 to 300 deaf students and offers a degree in Deaf Studies. To begin the major, students must show some proficiency in ASL.
ASL at Other Universities
Many other universities in the United States offer ASL classes or deaf-related degree programs that speak to a variety of career interests. If you are interested in interpreting, look for a degree such as Northeastern University's ASL/Interpreting program. If you are interested in education, look at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's major or minor in ASL Studies housed in the School of Education. The University of Rochester is a great choice for hearing students with no experience in ASL. It was one of the first universities to offer a degree in American Sign Language and has the added benefit of being located in Rochester, New York, the city with the highest deaf and hard-of-hearing population per capita.
Many students don't know about special programs in ASL and deaf studies related to speech or communication sciences. For example, Emerson College has a Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, which offers a minor in Hearing and Deafness. Ithaca College has a Department of Speech-Language Pathology that offers a Bachelor of Science program that includes ASL and deaf studies coursework. Consider your ultimate goal when deciding on an ASL program that's right for you.