ALEXANDRIA, NJ - You could use it to order a meal, check into a hotel or inquire about lost luggage, but it’s really not that kind of language. American Sign Language is for everyday communication with the deaf.
Del Val is the only high school in Hunterdon to offer ASL, even though it is recognized by the state as fulfilling world-language requirements.
Last year students were polled about languages they’d like to learn, and the runaway favorite was ASL. “The school board was supportive of the initiative,” said Superintendent Daria Wasserbach, “especially so since it was student-driven.”
She knew it would be a hard position to fill, “and we are so fortunate to have secured our outstanding ASL teacher" Kara Trunk.
The new teacher’s interest in ASL goes back to her high school days in Allentown, Pa. It began with a desire to communicate with deaf twin schoolmates who “became my friends when I started to learn ASL. I had multiple classes with them and, when working in groups, I was one of the only students that tried to communicate with them. I started out slowly by just learning the ABCs and by the end of my sophomore year, I was able to hold a conversation with them,” she recalls.
ASL “became a huge part of my life when I started to involve myself in the Deaf community and learn about their culture. It often bothered me that deaf people face many communication barriers, so I felt it was my calling to break those barriers so they can live like any other hearing person.”
She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Bloomsburg University in ASL/English Interpreting. When Trunk is not teaching at Del Val, she is interpreting for medical practitioners and their deaf patients and college professors and their deaf students. She is pursuing a master’s degree in Deaf Education.
Trunk explains that “Deaf” is capitalized when it refers to more than a medical condition. It describes a person who “associates with the Deaf community, uses ASL, and is proudly Deaf.”
Some students, like senior Julianna Hinrichsen and freshman Nicole Hudak, signed up for ASL because they were intrigued. “It sounded more interesting than a typical spoken language,” said Julianna, and “it is, very much.”
Sophomore Jon Bach hadn’t clicked with Spanish in grade school or with German his freshman year. He thought sign language sounded easy. And it is – for him. “I learn by doing things, not just by reading a book or watching or listening to somebody do something.” He recommends it for other “hands-on” learners like himself.
The signing is made more meaningful with context. Jon learned that “there is an entire community for the Deaf, and they live in very different world than the hearing community.”
Nicole said, “We learn about Deaf culture and history, and it helps us understand the language and community better.” She was struck by “the prejudice and struggles the Deaf community had to face. For a long period of time, Deaf people were not allowed to use sign language and were forced to speak.” It surprised her that “sign language wasn’t even fully acknowledged as a real language until 1960.”
Some of the students have only been able to practice sign language on each other or by teaching it to family members, but Jon saw a likely person working in a store, and “I ended up introducing myself to her using sign, which was pretty cool.”
He is a volunteer ski patroller at Shawnee Mountain, and “knowing ASL could be a great thing to know if I responded to an accident with a deaf individual who was hurt. I would be able to communicate with them and tell them what is going on.”
Next fall Trunk will be working at Del Val full-time. Besides the current three sections of ASL I, she’ll be adding two sections of ASL II.