LOS ANGELES -- Enrollments have soared in American Sign Language classes at colleges around the United States, but many of the students are not planning to become sign language interpreters or teachers for the deaf.
Instead, they are looking for a way to avoid taking Spanish, French, or another spoken language.
"I thought, 'Cool, you can talk with your hands,' " said Marisol Arzate, a student at Pierce College in Los Angeles.
Arzate, 20, who earns A's and B's in community college, had struggled in high school Spanish classes despite learning the basics from her Mexican-born parents. When she registered at Pierce for her first semester of American Sign Language, Arzate said, her hunch was: "This should be easy. No big deal."
These days Arzate warns that ASL is tough to master, and so do many others with normal hearing who have studied the language. Still, it is attracting many students who prefer to learn visually and who attend, or plan to enroll at, schools that approve ASL for meeting language requirements.
So many students have discovered ASL in recent years that it recorded the fastest enrollment growth rate of any so-called foreign language offered on US college campuses, according to the Modern Language Association. The group says ASL is now the fifth most widely studied foreign language in college, trailing Spanish, French, German, and Italian.
Academic leaders are divided on the educational merits. Although the list of colleges approving ASL for foreign-language entrance or graduation requirements keeps growing, some prominent schools, including the University of Southern California, are holdouts. They say ASL -- unlike French, for example -- does not open a window into another country's culture.
The debate has not dampened students' enthusiasm. Among those pushing up enrollment are ambitious high school students who flock to community colleges for ASL classes because they are not offered at their high schools. Many want a different way to earn language credits for their college applications.
"Spoken language really is not my big, strong suit," said Sterling Hirsh, 15, a sophomore at North Hollywood High School's magnet program for gifted students who studies ASL at Glendale Community College.
He credits his success in ASL partly to teacher Lisa Chahayed, an instructor at Glendale and Pierce. Chahayed, 41, who has been deaf since birth, runs a fast-paced class, with animated give-and-take, communicated through gestures and signs. The classroom quiet -- there is no speaking -- is shattered every few minutes by the laughter she draws from students with lighthearted role-playing.
Many of Chahayed's students had no ties to the deaf community before studying ASL and have no specific plans to use the language professionally. But she is optimistic that students will leave the course with "a brand-new outlook on life and that they appreciate us for who we are and how much we go through."
The origins of American Sign Language are traced at least to the late 1600s, when a form of sign language was used by the deaf community on Martha's Vineyard.
The language moved closer to its current form in the early 1800s when a Protestant minister -- Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, for whom Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., is named -- helped establish a Connecticut school for the deaf.
Today, it is estimated that ASL is the primary language for as many as 500,000 people.
Academics have widely recognized ASL as a full-fledged language with complex grammar. It relies on arm and hand movements as well as body posture and facial expressions. Although deaf people sometimes sprinkle English into conversations by finger-spelling words, ASL has a distinct vocabulary. One dictionary lists more than 7,000 entries.
Linguists overwhelmingly dismiss the notion that ASL is easy to learn, although it lacks a written literature and comes more quickly to some students than spoken languages.
Boston University, which rejected ASL as a foreign language in 1994, is at the center of the debate. Its College of Arts and Sciences is reviewing the matter again.
Jeffrey Henderson, Boston University's dean of arts and sciences, said his college's current requirement "doesn't aim only for students to achieve a certain competence in a language but also [to learn] a language that provides access to the culture of another society. That's what's under debate because ASL is a North American language."