-- Britney Alcorn had always wanted to be able to communicate better with a family friend who is deaf, so she signed up last year for an American Sign Language course offered at her public high school.

She enjoyed it so much that she took another class this year and plans to enroll after graduation in a two-year community college program that will enable her to become an interpreter.

"I really would like to interpret in a hospital," said the 17-year-old senior at Mason High School. "It would be a way for me to do what I enjoy and help break down some of the communication barriers the deaf face in health care."

The silent form of communication has become one of the most popular foreign languages taught to the hearing at high schools and universities around the country -- booming over the last five years. Some educators and language experts say the growth was sparked partly by sign language's increased visibility in movies, television series and commercials, and at public events such as conferences, political speeches and church services.

At least 35 states recognize ASL as a language for public schools and more than 100 four-year universities accept it for foreign language requirements. Experts say the number of two-year colleges that offer it is even greater.

A survey of state education departments by the Teachers College of Columbia University showed at least 701 public high schools offered sign language classes in 2004, up from 456 in 2000 and 185 in 1995.

"We just started offering ASL in 2003, and already we have students who have to be turned away because we don't have enough classes," said Christie Thieman, who teaches four classes at Mason High in this Cincinnati suburb. They have a total enrollment of 120 students.

Thieman wants her students to understand that "ASL is much more than just learning the signs for words," she said. "There are not even signs for some English words. You have to communicate through a range of gestures, facial expressions and body language."

Students seem increasingly drawn to the elements that set sign language apart from written and spoken languages.

"I'm more of a visual, hands-on type of person, and that makes this more interesting and easier for me than Spanish, which I took for two years but didn't like much," said Craig Smith, 17, who has a class with Thieman.

Alcorn has been able to communicate -- and keep up -- when she goes out to eat on Sundays with deaf friends at her church.

"One of the most surprising things to me about ASL is that the grammar is entirely different from English," she said. "Instead of saying in English, 'I'm going to the store,' you would sign 'store I go.' "

Demand for ASL is also strong in higher education.

A 2002 survey of foreign language enrollments in U.S. colleges and universities by the Modern Language Association showed ASL increasing by 432 percent, from 11,420 in 1998 to 60,781 in 2002 -- more than four times the increase of any of the 15 most commonly taught languages on those campuses.

Alton Brant, associate professor of ASL at Clemson University in South Carolina, takes personal satisfaction in the increasing acceptance of ASL. The hearing son of deaf parents, Brant said he was discouraged from signing as a child when his family went out in public because his parents did not want to draw attention to themselves.

"Now you see ASL on television and in other public areas, you have closed captioning and more and more agencies and organizations are looking for people who know ASL," Brant said. "It's like a dream come true."

He traces the emergence to publicity created by a 1988 protest at Gallaudet University over the hiring of a non-hearing-impaired president, the growth of advocacy groups for the deaf and changes required of businesses and government by the federal Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

While some linguists have questioned ASL's classification as a foreign language, its growing acceptance at schools around the country has diluted opposition.

The linguists argued that ASL is not a foreign language, even though it is not based on English, because it is primarily used in the United States and Canada and differs from sign languages of other countries. ASL proponents respond that a language's place of origin has little to do with its status as a foreign language at most universities.

"Many programs accept American Indian languages, such as Navajo, as fulfilling foreign language requirements," said Sherman Wilcox, chairman of the linguistics department at the University of New Mexico, where about 700 of the 1,000 sign language students this year are in introductory classes.

ASL teachers say many students want to learn the language so they can better serve the deaf community and gain a skill that may give them a competitive edge in professions such as medicine, social work, counseling and emergency services.

Paula Patrick, foreign language coordinator for the Fairfax County public schools, said the visual aspect of ASL has added to the popularity of the courses. She said linguistic studies have shown that students who do not do as well in spoken or written languages often excel in visual learning situations such as ASL.

"Students who think that ASL will be a lot easier are often surprised, but it's like other languages in that it requires commitment and hard work," said Patrick, whose district offers ASL at 13 of its high schools.