Learning A Silent Language- Sign Language Classes At Whatcom

By Ryan Tipper
Photo by Lyric Otto

With many different degrees and prerequisites requiring today’s high school and college students to expand their horizons and learn a new language, a large amount of choices are available to them. While many of these require the use of vocals, one of them is completely silent yet just as in-depth as others.

Within the department of World Languages at Whatcom are the American Sign Language (ASL) classes. While many students understand sign language as speaking with hand gestures, experiencing one of classes, which are taught by Glen Bocock, can create a whole different perspective.

Silence is the first thing someone entering a class in full swing might notice. Other than the slight noise of the friction of fingers brushing each other as they swoop and turn to form sentences, no sounds are noticeable.

Whether a person knows ASL or not, the sight of Bocock and his students simultaneously signing with each other is as entrancing as watching a conductor as he leads his orchestra through a symphony.

Bocock, who is deaf, is able to relate to his class on a personal level as all communication in class is done with signing. He engages his students in lesson plans, videos and group-based activities with his hands and they respond like-wise.

“When learning to sign, you start by learning gestures,” Bocock signed. “You then incorporate words, then sentences and grammar.”

“Students are forced to ask questions in class as well as communicate,” Bocock signed. “Students can take what they learn here and use it out of class such as with a deaf family member.”

While viewing one of these classes firsthand, an outsider will realize how different it is from a normal college class. While Bocock does all his instructing at the front of the room, his students sit at individual desks that wrap around in a semi-circle and face their professor.

This change in the normal formation of seating allows for the students to better interact with each other as well as Bocock. Being able to see everyone’s hands is crucial to communicating via ASL.

“A lot of people think learning sign language is easy; it isn’t,” Bocock signed. “Teaching a class with intelligence” is something he enjoys about his students because of ASL’s learning curve.

Many of the students that make up Bocock’s class share their personal experiences of both learning from Bocock as well as being a practitioner of ASL.

“He may seem really strict, but he’s not,” Missy Jenkins, one of Bocock’s students said. “One rule he has is if you use your voice it’s ‘out to the hall and kiss the wall’.”

The use of humor in Bocock’s signing is noticeable, and not just from the wide smile he often carries on his face.
“I stand underneath Interstate 5 with a sign,” Glen signed about the functioning of the ASL classes. “It says “come join Whatcom Community Colleges ASL classes!”

When signing with answers like this, the laughter that follows is one of the few things that will break the silence of the class.

Robert Coty, another of Bocock’s students, related how he uses signs on a personal level. “I enjoy that I get to use ASL in the community,” Coty said. “There are local deaf events that we can go to further our learning and practice.”

One thing that both Bocock and his students advocate is how sign language has its own “feel and culture.”

Attending a deaf event helps give others a glimpse into this type of culture whether they know ASL or not. Bocock’s classes are an academic embodiment of this type of culture as the energy can be felt just by entering the room.

Behind the joking and light-heartedness that Bocock brings to class, it seems obvious how personal ASL is to him and how much he gets out of teaching it to others.

“I get joy and excitement out of seeing my students develop academically,” Bocock signed. “When they have a deaf family member and they can apply it to that, that’s special.”

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