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Ask Away: 5 Questions for a PhD Candidate who Rediscovered her Lost ASL

 

We’re asking students, teachers, and counselors five questions on how languages play a role in shaping personal and professional success…

Meet Breanne—a Cornell PhD candidate in Plant Pathology who’s advocating for the ASL she first learned in childhood.

"Ask Away: 5 Questions" banner image with portrait of Breanne

1. When did you start learning American Sign Language (ASL)—how did you get started?

I was born hard-of-hearing back when they didn’t test children upon birth but it didn’t take too long for them to find out. I got hearing aids when I was 3 years old and had a deaf education teacher who used ASL throughout elementary school.

From there, I was mainstreamed with no interpreter and knew no other deaf or hard-of-hearing people, so I lost my language. Upon going to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology (NTID/RIT) for Explore Your Future (EYF) with fellow D/HoH high school students, I started learning again!

All the friends I made in that program and I went there for college, where I had signing friends, interpreters in every class, etc.

I learned about Deaf culture and ASL again, and it was beautiful! It was nice to feel at home for a while.

2. The Cornell University Deaf Awareness Project (CUDAP) has successfully advocated for the implementation of ASL courses to Cornell’s curriculum. Have you participated in any language advocacy efforts?

Yes, I’m a huge disability advocate on campus, been involved with student assemblies, was on the Presidential Task Force, and more. In addition, I served on a panel for one of their excellent events! Way to go, CUDAP! I’m also on the search committee for this position we are hiring for, I’m excited to read way too many applications and do some of the “dirty work” behind the scenes!

It’s about time we get an ASL program in every Ivy League and people get credits for learning sign language!

Having hearing people learn and care about our language is flattering. We want all hearing people to learn sign language so they can communicate with us, even if you can only have the most simple conversations at first. Thank you for your efforts, you rock! Keep making it fun with games and songs, and keep up the advocacy arm—that is how you will have a truly long-lasting effect on our campus culture, where honestly a lot of D/HoH people never get to step foot on our campus.

There are still a lot of barriers for our success in academia!

3. What advice do you have for students who are learning American Sign Language—any tips?

Like learning any language, the more often you practice, the better. That’s obvious, but let me tell you something else I strongly, strongly suggest. Get out to Deaf events!!!! There is an off-campus community, and you need to get in the door with them! Syracuse has events and dinners where people sign the whole time, and NTID/RIT has “No Voice Zone” (NVZ) every Wednesday.

4. If you could tell the world one thing about American Sign Language and/or Deaf culture, what would it be?

There is great, vast diversity in Deaf culture.

There are Deaf + disabled, Deaf LGBTQI+, Deaf POC, DeafBlind, etc.

There is also a lot of research on Deaf culture and identity, including books on these studies and interesting take-home messages. There is research on the pros of being Deaf (think efficiency of a language that fits in 3D spaces, or the incredible vision of people who grew up Deaf and signing).

Here in the U.S., Deaf culture is so strong that some don’t identify as disabled. In some other countries, deafness is viewed as a curse and people are viewed as incapable and don’t get educations or social lives.

Also, I think it’s really important that hearing people get their misconceptions corrected by us and our hearing allies. ASL is a derivative of French Sign Language (FSL) and is a real, full, vibrant language with its own grammatical nuances and such. It is not a derivative of spoken English.

BONUS QUESTION: What is your favorite ASL sign? What does it look like and why is it your favorite?

One of them is cool with the thumb on the chest and the wiggly fingers. I remember when I first saw it and whenever I use it I feel groovy! I also love the sign where you make a fist and kiss the back of your hand—I use it to talk about a delicious food I LOVE to eat.

 

Visit our Lead with ASL page to explore language scholarships, university programs, student testimonials, and more.

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