Signing off: Language Learning beyond the classroom


Addy Town (10) references the vocabulary sheet, mimicking a sign to practice before a quiz.

Photo by Emily Ownby.  

Hidden from the noise of a bustling hallway, the quietest club on campus gathers for a weekly meeting. The Sign Language Club, lead by teacher Ms. Brianne Welser, meets each Wednesday to learn vocabulary and sentence structure in American Sign Language (ASL).

The club, sponsored by Ms. Welser, was developed and launched near the end of the fall 2017 semester, by request of an 11th grade student. Ms. Welser was approached as the sponsor due to her experience with ASL. Starting in the 6th grade, Ms. Welser took ASL each year of school, all the way through her college years at the State University of New York. With eleven years of signing under her belt, Ms. Welser agreed to lead the club.

Since the group’s initial meeting, the club has gained ten participating members. Together, the students and Ms. Welser have progressed through a textbook and paper handouts, learning signs for individual words, phrases, and structuring sentences. Ms. Welser will sign each new vocabulary word for students to mimic and learn. Each club meeting begins with a quiz over the previous week’s vocabulary. Each quiz contains twenty questions including signed sentences and finger spelling, of which students write the interpretation.

One participating student, Maya Borowicz (10), is adding ASL to the list of languages she hopes to learn.

“I really love languages,” Borowicz said. “I think it’s so cool that you can communicate with a person that you couldn’t before.”

In school, Borowicz is studying Spanish, and uses the internet and phone apps such as Duolingo to teach herself other languages, including Japanese.

“I started getting interested in sign language a while ago, like in preschool,” Borowicz explained. “My teacher taught us some sign language. And then I stopped for a while, but now it’s being offered and being taught, so I joined.”

Approximately 70 million people utilize some form of sign language, with 500,000 living in the United States, as reported by the World Federation of the Deaf.

Because ASL is so widely used, Borowicz encourages people to learn it. “ASL is quite common. It’s definitely a good idea [to learn it] if you want to communicate with a deaf person. It’s quite a useful language in general.”

Similar to in-class language curriculum, Ms. Welser directs the participants through projects and experience opportunities. Welser pitched the idea of taking a club visit to Crepe Crazy, the downtown Austin crepe shop, owned and operated by an entirely deaf staff.

Sign Language Club offers Ann Richards students the opportunity to learn a new language beyond the French and Spanish curriculum offered in class.