Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, left, is seen with Health Minister Adrian Dix and ASL interpreter Nigel Howard at a COVID-19 briefing on Monday, March 16, 2020.

Students at UBC now have the chance to take American Sign Language courses from arguably the province's most recognizable interpreter-- Nigel Howard.

Howard has become a familiar face alongside provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix during their live updates about the COVID-19 pandemic.

He attracted a huge following on social media for what's been described as his expressive and unique communication, and a Facebook fan club was created in his honour.

Howard is an adjunct professor in the school's linguistics department and has been teaching a pilot course at the school since 2018. But the school's new intro classes will be the first time UBC has offered credit courses in ASL. In a statement from the school, Howard says since UBC has both medical and educational schools, he hopes trainees will ultimately come away with a better understanding of deaf culture, which could lead to changes in how people who are deaf are portrayed in the media and perceived by society.

"A common misconception is that being deaf is an audiological or medical experience rather than a cultural one," he said in the statement.

"Imagine the scenario where a doctor tells parents their child has 'failed' a hearing test, a negative connotation that can affect the parent-child relationship. We need to shift the lens-- your child is healthy, and deaf."

Howard will be teaching ASL 100 and 101, both capped at 30 students each. When the school opened up a second section of his intro ASL class, it was full in five days.

In an interview with CTV in March, he said the experience in his prominent role has been interesting and hoped that people shifted their mindset away from thinking about deaf people as being disabled.

"I would hope that the British Columbians realize that ASL is actually a language in its own entity, just like any other language, and that they shift their mindset of deaf people being 'disabled' to persons that happen to be deaf and use different language," he said.

The ASL 100 course will focus on core grammar and vocabulary as well as "the connection between language and deaf culture."

"ASL is similar to other signed languages such as British, Japanese, Russian, in that they are very much 3-dimensional. It is a physically visual language using space in front of you to convey complex and sophisticated discourse," Howard said.

"Also, it may not be possible to incorporate deaf norms for things such as attention getting, conversational openers and back-channelling."

Howard says teaching some of the concepts remotely will be a challenge and will require some creativity. While he says ASL classes have always been popular, he believes the general public has become "more intrigued."

"For too long, there had been no sign language interpreters on television or in any other form of media," he said in the statement. "People have the assumption that reading closed captioning would be more than adequate, not realizing that the majority of deaf people consider ASL as their primary language and English as their second language."

At Tuesday's COVID-19 briefing, Dix announced Howard and fellow interpreter Sara MacFayden would be returning to their teaching duties in the fall and thanked them for their work throughout the pandemic.

"They have helped make our briefings more accessible, more inclusive," he said. "I know they will continue to make a huge impact in their teaching roles this fall."