Columbia College program thrives amid growing popularity in American Sign Language

It's a language that more and more people are trying to learn every year, and it's more than just a trend.

American Sign Language helps a large part of the country's community stay connected. Chicago happens to have one of the most unique programs to learn ASL in the country.

"ASL is the third most popularly used language in America," said Peter Cook, chair of the ASL Department at Columbia College Chicago.  

It's a language that made its way from France to the American School for the Deaf back in the 1800s.

Now, more than a half a million people throughout the United States use American Sign Language as their primary way of communicating. And today, more and more people outside the deaf community want to learn the language.

"There are two things happening simultaneously. ASL has been growing in popularity since the 90s. But what we're noticing, because of the movies and the TVs and the representation in the media, lots more people are enrolling in classes," Cook said.

A recent example of this representation was CODA, the Apple movie surrounding a hearing girl in a family that's deaf. The movie won the Oscar for best picture last year, and Troy Kotsur won the Academy Award for best supporting actor, becoming the second deaf performer in Oscar history to win an acting category.

On top of movies, TV shows and theater performances, social media like TikTok and Instagram have played a significant role in driving interest to learn how to sign.

Columbia has one of the few four-year programs in the country for students interested in becoming ASL interpreters. They also offer classes for those who only want to learn the language through a program they call the ASL Institute.

It's a six-week course with a teacher that's deaf, so you're immersed in the language immediately. And classes like this are not just for people that are hearing.

Artist Jonhavi Kemka has been deaf her whole life. She moved to Chicago from India to work towards her Master of Fine Arts and didn't know any kinds of sign language before arriving in the U.S.

"When Covid hit, everyone had to wear masks and I was so scared," Kemka said. "And now that I’ve met deaf people and I know sign language, I’m able to connect and I’m so happy. Before I learned sign language I thought that I wanted to go back to India. But now that I know deaf people and how to communicate with them. I want to stay here."

And for Lauren Noelle - a librarian at Columbia who is hard of hearing and loves learning languages - taking these classes has been about more than learning to sign.

"One of the things I learned years ago when I was studying Russian is that we became a little family learning language together. So we sort of have a cohort, a family," Noelle said.

The ASL department says their aim is to create an environment where those that are deaf or have hearing loss feel like they belong.

"We celebrate our community. We have a deaf identity and we look at our deaf identity through a cultural lens, not from a medical perspective," Cook said.

"A lot of people might think like ‘oh, you can't hear, you have a hearing loss. That's too bad.’ But we don't think of it like that. We value and support our child to each other. We have social events and we celebrate our language and culture," he said.

If you want to learn more about those deaf culture events or find out more about Columbia's interpreting program, you can find that over on

If you can't make it to those classes, Columbia College recommends learning from someone that's deaf or from a company that is deaf-owned.

And make sure the person that you're learning from isn't just making up gestures and calling it American Sign Language.