Students Research Challenges of Learning ASL at NTID

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A Professor’s Introduction

Christine Monikowski, PhD
Professor, Department of ASL and Interpreting Education
Rochester NY
I teach a Discourse Analysis course to students in the spring semester of their second year. One project for my course is a Topic Review, the goal of which is to expose students to scholarly publications related to Discourse Analysis and analyze how to apply it to their own work as interpreters. I create a fairly extensive list of articles which changes every year and includes some classics (Johnson & Newport’s 1989 Critical Period Effects in Second Language Learning, for example) and some newer works such as Russell & Winston’s 2015 Tapping Into the Interpreting Process. Groups of 2 or 3 students select an article and prepare a presentation for class. Two years ago, a group of 3 students (including Hunter Ekberg, Rebecca Lucas, and Renae Zaleski) chose McKee & McKee’s 1992 article and became very interested in exploring whether the results were applicable today. The following semester (fall of 3rd year), they developed a survey, ran a small pilot, and then conducted an online survey of their classmates. During that time, Rebecca had to withdraw from this project due to other responsibilities. Hunter and Renae presented their results to the NTID community this past fall – to an enthusiastic audience of over 50 people, including their peers, Deaf students, and faculty/staff. That presentation was recorded and I encouraged them to go one step further, by submitting this report to the CIT newsletter, using the video of their presentation as a guide.
I would strongly encourage everyone to consider taking the time to help undergraduate students learn a bit about research. None of the students involved in this project earned any credits for their work (although I suggested an independent study – they did not need the credits). They did complete the RIT Institute Review Board’s required training and worked with me to file the appropriate documents. My responsibility was to keep them on track, advise them on the scope of the project (keep it small and focused), and encourage them to complete the work before the last semester of their Senior year – when graduation looms large and they have other projects to complete. These students may or may not continue on to graduate school. Regardless, they now have the experience of conducting a small research project and have gained an understanding of the steps along the way. Best of all, they both have more questions now than when they began and they realize that complicated questions are better than simple answers.
If you are interested in any aspect of this Topic Review project, feel free to contact me. I would be happy to share.


Johnson, J. S., & Newport, E. L. (1989). Critical period effects in second language learning: The influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second language. Cognitive psychology21(1), 60-99.
Russell, Debra and Winston, Betsy. 2014. Tapping into the interpreting process: using participant reports to inform the interpreting process in educational settings. The International Journal for Translation & Interpreting Research Vol 6, No 1, pp. 102-127.

“What’s So Hard About Learning ASL – at NTID?”

by Renae Zaleski and Hunter Ekberg
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology
Rochester NY
Our team of researchers drew upon McKee and McKee’s seminal work, What’s So Hard About Learning ASL (1992)[1], which discussed students’ perspectives on the difficulties of learning ASL, among many other topics. Our goal was to determine whether the results of the 1992 McKee and McKee study still apply to today’s learner of ASL at NTID. Given the time that had passed since this study, we wanted to update the work and use some of those initial findings to explore the perspectives of students in the ASL/English Interpreting Program at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID). There are approximately 160 students enrolled in NTID’s BS degree program (40 students in each year). Courses in ASL are required in years one, two, and three; interpreting courses are offered years three and four[2].
This is a brief summary of some of the results of an online survey we administered to our IEP students enrolled in ASL levels four and five in the fall semester of 2014. It is important to note the diversity of ASL backgrounds of these students. Some had previous ASL courses in either high school or at a community college and some began their ASL studies when admitted to our IEP. One thing they all had in common was that they had all taken at least one ASL class at NTID.
The online survey was available for two weeks and a total of 40 students participated (out of a possible 85). Our N = 40, although not all students answered every question, and we combined the data and did not compare the data between the two course levels (due to the similarities caused by the transition to semesters). We realize this is a relatively small sample size but we found the results of this pilot project to be quite interesting. We were seeking information about students’ perspectives on their expressive and receptive skills – how challenging did they perceive the development of these skills (using a 5 point Likert Scale). Eight questions addressed the following: grammar, non-manual signals, classifiers, fluency, spatial indexing, articulation, and performance. Two other questions were broader and asked students to reflect on when they were thinking in ASL and their view of their overall skills. We also included an open-ended question so students could add any additional thoughts.
For the purposes of this article, we are sharing some of the more interesting results related to grammar, non-manual signals, and overall perceptions of expressive and receptive skills.
One question related to comprehension of ASL grammar: how difficult is it for you to comprehend meaning by analyzing grammatical structure. Approximately 24% of the students responded that they found this “somewhat/extremely challenging”. When it came to their expressive skills (how difficult is it for you to produce grammatical structures with your intended meaning), 69% saw this “somewhat/extremely difficult”.
Graph showing response related to relative ease or difficulty of learning ASL grammar
Two questions related to ASL non-manual signals, again asking how easy/difficult students thought this feature was to comprehend and to express. We were surprised by these responses. Approximately 64% of the students said they were “extremely/somewhat easy” to comprehend and 58% said they were “extremely/somewhat easy” to produce. Anecdotally, many of the ASL faculty in our program constantly remind students (at all levels of our ASL courses) to improve their non-manuals but approximately half of the students think these features are relatively easy to comprehend and produce.
Graph showing relative ease or difficulty of learning Non-Manual Signals
When looking at each skill that we mentioned earlier (grammar, non-manual signals, classifiers, etc.) we noticed a trend related to receptive skills. For each of these areas, an average of 55% of the students responded that it was “extremely/somewhat easy”. However, for two broader questions, “thinking in ASL” and “combined skills” only approximately 42% of the responses said these were “extremely/somewhat easy” to comprehend. This supports the fact that students in general felt they were more skilled when focusing on discrete skills rather than their language abilities as a whole.
At the end of our survey, we asked students to indicate their perceived balance of skills sets: how comparable do you think your expressive and receptive skills are. Possible answers ranged from “receptive is far better than expressive” to “expressive is far better than receptive” (again, using the Likert Scale). With an N of 19 for this question, 55% reported that their receptive skills are “far better/slightly better” than their expressive skills 33% reported their expressive skills to be “far/slightly better” than their receptive skills, and 15% felt both were comparable. We included a sample of their comments here:

  • I almost always understand at least the concept of what a person is signing but occasionally people ask me to clarify my own signs.
  • I feel that I can understand my professors pretty easily but need to put more effort into expressing myself accurately and appropriately in class.
  • I can usually understand what is being signed but when it is time for me to respond, I panic and freeze. My signs come out choppy and poorly.
  • I have noticed that I don’t quickly understand conversations…that I don’t know the context of.
  • I am very comfortable with the level in which I express and receive ASL.

As with any research, we end with more questions than answers. First, we wonder about the number and timing of tests that the respondents took during the semester we distributed our survey. What impact did taking a test and the grades for that test have on the students? For example, had a student recently taken a test and felt concerned about her work? Or had a student recently received a high grade and felt proud of her accomplishment? Or did a student hear some negative feedback from her peers and/or instructor and felt frustrated? We did not attempt to chart course activities with our survey but we do wonder how course activities impact students’ perceptions of their work.
A second question we have related to students’ socialization in the Deaf community. We did not ask how involved they are with either Deaf students on campus or in the greater Rochester community. Language acquisition requires interaction beyond the classroom. We have no way of knowing the amount of actual time our students do/do not use ASL in social interactions but this would be an important piece of data if we are to determine how the average interpreting student at NTID acquires ASL.
The importance of this first-step study becomes clear when one takes a step back and realizes the overarching goals of IEPs across the country – instruction and guidance of new interpreters in the field. This means providing successful interpreting services to members of the Deaf community through class instruction, mentorship, real-world application and relationships with teachers and mentors. But IEPs also have another goal…to prepare students to become future mentors and instructors themselves, ushering in a new generation…leading to the betterment of the field of interpreting. An understanding of how students learn is an important first step to that future.


McKee, Rachel Locker and McKee, David. Summer 1992. What’s so hard about learning ASL? Students’ and teachers’ perceptions. Sign Language Studies 75, pp. 129-157.


For additional information, please contact:
Christine Monikowski, PhD
Department of ASL and Interpreting Education

[1] Many thanks to Rachel for agreeing to let us adapt her work.
[2] Rochester Institute of Technology recently transitioned to semesters, requiring all programs to develop a course mask to insure students who were accepted under the old quarter system a smooth path to graduation; this also required a major review of each course in our curriculum.