UNCP instructor to launch first sign language course


Kelly Johnson Cheek will launch a new kind of course in the 2005 fall semester at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

 Kelly Cheek - Welcome to




Welcome to Sign Language Class

Cheek will teach an introductory class in sign language. It will be offered through the School of Education, and will target a wide audience, said Dr. Jane Huffman, chair of the Education Department.

“The course is designed not only for education majors and other students on campus, but for public school teachers who have hearing-impaired students in their classrooms,” Dr. Huffman said.

Approximately 500,000 people use American Sign Language (ASL), and indications are a lot more would like to learn.

“There have been many requests here for sign language courses over the years,” said Mary Helen Walker, director of UNCP’s Disability Support Services, where Cheek keeps an office. “With Kelly on staff, the time is right.”

Sign language classes are a rising star in higher education in both education and foreign language departments. Nationally, sign language is the fifth most popular “foreign” language taught at universities, according to the Modern Languages Association.

Sign language is a good fit in both language and education departments, Cheek said.

“If this takes off, the course may be offered in both departments,” Cheek said. “At many colleges, it has become very popular.”

“Some students who have difficulty with foreign languages do well in sign language,” Cheek said. “For teachers, it is important to learn educational strategies for deaf students, especially for teachers of exceptional children.”

The course will introduce students to sign language and other issues related to education and culture of the hearing impaired.

“Students will learn basic sign language skills and by level three, will begin to explore aspects of American Sign Language,” Cheek said. “For education majors, there is a good deal more to learn regarding the physiology of deafness, deaf culture and ethical and curriculum issues.”

Cheek will co-teach the course with Jennifer Lowry, an instructor in the School of Education and assistant director of the Office of Disability Support Services. The class will be closely monitored, Dr. Huffman said.

“This is a pilot course to find out if there is interest,” she said. “We’ve already had a lot of students asking about it.”

Dr. Zoe Locklear, dean of the School of Education, said sign language fills a need for the public schools.

“We want to be very responsive to public school teachers in our region,” Dr. Locklear said. “During the fall semester, we will evaluate their concerns and needs prior to establishing the spring and summer 2006 schedules.”

A Laurinburg, N.C., native, Cheek has served as interpreter at UNCP’s commencements and other events for several years. She received her first exposure in sign language at Scotland High School.

“It was an elective course in high school, and our teacher recommended that I continue training in sign language,” she said. “When I got to UNC Greensboro, I immediately started in the deaf education program.”

At Greensboro, Cheek worked her way up to a job as a classroom interpreter. Her career path included study at the world-famous Gallaudet University for the deaf in Washington, D.C. She worked four years in the public schools in self-contained classes and “inclusion” environments.

Cheek also spent two years at UNCP as an educational interpreter. Her first hearing-impaired student successfully graduated with a degree in art. She is currently interpreting for a freshman.

“Right now, I am working with a non-traditional student, who is doing exceptionally well,” Cheek said. “Interpreting in the classroom can be very difficult because, for many deaf people, English is not their first language, and they are missing a lot of the cultural context.”

Scholars say the process of interpreting is highly complex, requiring the interpreter to be proficient in at least two languages. Interpreters must understand the meaning of an expressed message in one language and convert it to a second language.

“In class, I do more than sign word-for-word,” Cheek said. “Interpreting in a classroom means hearing the message in English and ‘converting’ it concept-for-concept into the target modality which is most often called pigeon-signed English or PSE, which is a combination of ASL and English. Signing the message exactly as it is heard is called transliteration.”

Humor, slang and quotations might be interpreted literally, or they might be transferred to a comparable language in sign language. Interpreters often find themselves charged with the responsibility of bridging cultural barriers as well as linguistic ones.

Consequently, Cheek is getting an education in subjects like art and cultural anthropology along with her students. And business may be booming, because the Office of Disability Services was notified this spring that the University accepted four hearing-impaired freshmen for the fall semester.

With a new sign language course and a growing cohort of deaf students headed for campus, it appears as if a new cultural wave is about to land on UNCP’s shores.

“Sign language education and interpreting for deaf students are great challenges for me personally and the University community too,” Cheek said. “I am looking forward to it.”

For more information about the sign language class, please contact Kelly Johnson Cheek at 910.521.6695, email kelly.cheek@uncp.edu or contact the School of Education at 910.521.6221.