WHAT'S THE fourth most studied language by college students this year? A clue: It's growing rapidly, and is creating a controversy.

If you guessed that Spanish is the most-studied language and French the second most studied, you'd be correct. The Modern Language Association indicates that Spanish is the leader with 864,986 students, with French studied by 216,419 students.

German is a distant third with 96,349. Surprisingly, the language crowding German with 91,763 students is American Sign Language.

The first controversy stems from the fact that a sizable number of colleges are accepting American Sign Language to meet their foreign-language requirements. The New York Times reports that it's useful in fields like cognitive psychology, education, nursing, even scuba diving.

Obviously, sign language is essential for a number of professions. But here's my question to college administrators: How does ASL qualify as a "foreign language"? What country or region speaks it?

Robert Belka, former longtime chairman of the foreign-language department at Weber State in Utah, told the Orlando Sentinel that he believes American Sign Language is not a foreign language. Belka contends that students who take ASL to fulfill a language requirement miss out on studying languages steeped in foreign culture that are rich with diverse lifestyles and literature.

Exactly one of my points. I bet that many of the 91,000 students studying ASL are doing so because they think it's cool or easy.

Why trudge through Spanish or French or, heaven forbid, German or Russian, when you can fool around with something you see on TV and in the movies?

The Times quotes Anne Dunn, a junior at the University of Vermont, saying, "I started because we have a language requirement here. But sign language is so visual, so exciting that I got hooked and kept on going." Amy Ruth McGraw, who teaches at the University of Iowa, told the Times that many students had horrific experiences with French or Spanish in high school and think ASL will be better. And easier.

I see this as just another watering down of any kind of standards, even at major universities. There's plenty of talk of preparing our students for the new global economy. Yet many colleges are watering down their foreign language requirements at the time when students may need a second language for their postcollege careers.

But the more troubling part of this push toward recognition of American Sign Language as a foreign language involves people who are deaf. Belka argues (and I agree) that deaf communities are only a subculture of America and their language is part of that.

As Belka told the Orlando Sentinel, "I would say that an American signer has, with the exception of the handicap, the same cultural identity. They are born into American families and eat the same kinds of foods and go to the same supermarkets and schools as other Americans."

WHY IS IT considered oppressive to say that being deaf is a disability? It's not a culture, and that opinion isn't meant to degrade anyone, but simply to push back against a multicultural agenda that now wants to create a new culture out of a physical problem that we can help to overcome. Should people who are blind or paralyzed be pushing for their own cultural status?

The consequence of all this political posturing is that you have a sizable segment of deaf people and their allies who believe that cochlear implants and other technologies that can improve or normalize hearing are to be rejected. Why? Because that would constitute "cultural genocide."

What harmful nonsense. The drive to aid people to overcome a handicap is not an attempt to demean them, but to enable them to have an easier and fuller life. Any physician or medical researcher will tell you they get up every day driven to find ways to extend and enhance life. Unfortunately, many deaf people and their advocates view medical efforts as an insult.

Let's train people in American Sign Language in order to help them communicate in their future careers. But let's not enable future generations of slackers to pretend that they are studying a foreign language.

Teacher-turned-talk-show-host Dom Giordano is heard on WPHT/1210 AM. E-mail him at askdomg@aol.com.