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 SRU professor spreads love of sign language to students 



November 10, 2009
CONTACT: Kelly Snow


SRU professor spreads love of sign language to students

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Myra Balok, assistant professor of English at Slippery Rock University and adviser to the University's American Sign Language Club, is spreading her long-lived interest in sign language across campus through the club and club-sponsored projects.

            Although Balok is still learning the language herself, she enjoys using skills she has accumulated in years of study to educate the campus community about ASL. She helped found SRU's ASL Club in 2003 after a deaf student sent an e-mail seeking others interested in forming an educational student organization.

Six years later, the club sponsors non-credit mini-classes about ASL for students and hosts deaf awareness programs each semester. The mini-classes have been offered nearly every semester since 2004. Balok, and members of the club, are planning a Signing Santa Holiday Party this semester.

            Balok became seriously interested in ASL when her daughter showed an interest in taking classes. Since then, she has completed ASL course work in Colorado and tries to take courses regularly.

            "My daughter became interested in sign language when she was around age 10, and I supported her as she got older," Balok said, "As an adult, she wanted to take a class, so we took it together."

            Balok said although she has studied ASL for about 15 years, she still only knows the basics. 

To become fluent takes years of study, she said. ASL is not simply English with signs, which she said is a common misconception by those who do not study the language. 

According to "The American Sign Language Phrase Book," ASL is a visual-spatial language. ASL consists not only of signs made with the hands, but also a language of facial expressions, body movements and the efficient use of space around the signer.

            "ASL is signs that can be translated into English. It is not the same in all cultures," Balok said. "ASL has its own word order; it's not English syntax."

            For example, the English sentence "Joe bought a new camera" becomes "Camera + Joe + bought" in ASL. Because it is a visual language, usually the "topic" of the sentence comes first, not necessarily the "subject," as is common in English.

            Because she cannot teach students in the mini-classes herself, she assists ASL experts invited to campus for special projects. A class was recently led, for the first time, by a deaf, male instructor. Topics covered included the ASL alphabet, vocabulary, history and general information about the deaf culture. Although these classes are non-credit, Balok said an average of 35 students attend regularly and the number increases each semester. She said she hoped to see plans developed to offer an ASL class for credit because more individuals are showing interest in signing.

"More and more people are seeing its utility beyond just communicating with deaf people," she said.

Balok said about half of the club members are in some type of education program. Many others are in recreational therapy, physical therapy or adaptive therapy programs. Club members anticipate they will encounter deaf children or deaf clients in their professions, Balok said, and they want to be able to communicate with those individuals, even if they only know the basics.

Balok said ASL is also useful for children with significant language delays, children who are intellectually compromised for any number of reasons and for many children with autism.

She works to maintain a connection between the club and the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Pittsburgh. She often invites a school representative as well as SignShine, a WPSD student organization, to join SRU's Deaf Awareness Day program.

"Last spring, we had Valentine Wojton from WPSD visit, and we had almost 200 students attend," Balok said. "I was so excited when I saw the people there. Students ask the best questions."

In addition to inviting students and representatives from WPSD, Balok typically organizes a spring trip for SRU students to visit the Pittsburgh school.

This year, the ASL club is hosting its Merry Signing and Happy Holidays party at 12:30 p.m. Dec. 3 in the University Union. Activities scheduled for the party include pictures with a signing Santa and holiday carols signed by ASL club members.

Although SRU has a limited number of deaf students, Balok said ASL Club participation among SRU students seems to intensify every year.

"As more and more deaf people are active and involved in mainstream culture, we're going to encounter them more frequently," Balok said, "Wouldn't it be nice to be able to communicate with them?"


Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.

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