S1 E2: Sign Languages – Dr. Helen Koulidobrova

Episode 2 – 15 October 2020

In this episode, we talk with Dr. Helen Koulidobrova who is an Associate Professor in Applied Linguistics in the Department of English and Director of the Bilingualism and English Language Learning Research Lab at Central Connecticut State University. Helen’s research focuses on sign languages and how people acquire them, more specifically how those who already know a sign language learn a second one (and maybe they know a spoken language too!) and why some sign languages let you drop subjects and objects.

We talk about learning sign languages, the differences between sign languages from country to country (even region to region!), and the importance of sign languages. We also discuss how Helen uses her research to directly address issues in current policy such as helping make knowledge about sign language easier to access, ensuring hearing parents of deaf children can learn the local sign language to communicate with their children, the need to include those who sign in the conversations about new policy, among many others.

Disclaimer: This episode was recorded on 2/25/2020

Listen here!

Episode Transcript

[Carine] Psst, hey future Carine here! This episode contains a lot of linguistic vocabulary. Sorry for that! For those of us who aren’t linguistics majors or don’t remember your lectures you can check out our glossary for any terms or phrases you don’t know or recognize. Don’t worry, we did as well.
Okay, now enjoy the episode!

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[Eva-Maria] Hello and welcome back to our podcast, Much Language Such Talk. Today you’re listening to Eva-Maria and…

[Carine:] Carine

[Eva-Maria:] This week we have a very special guest, Helen Koulidobrova. Helen is currently visiting us at Bilingualism Matters from the Central Connecticut State University, where she is an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics. In the past, she has worked on English as an additional language, multilingualism in general, and the structure and acquisition of sign languages, to name but a few. So we’re taking advantage of her being here, so she can tell us all about her fantastic work and answer some of the questions we’ve gathered. So, hello Helen!

[Helen:]  Well, hello, Eva-Maria and Carine! Pleasure to be here.

[Eva-Maria:] Thank you very much for joining us. So, how are you liking Edinburgh? Is everything okay?

[Helen:] I am loving Edinburgh.

[Eva-Maria:] Yeah, even the weather?

[Carine:] Yeah, you’ve managed to get some of the worst weather we’ve ever had! [laughs]

[Helen:] I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s a beautiful sunny day outside, and it’s significantly warmer than it is in the US.

[Eva-Maria:] Oh, is it really?

[Helen:] Yes, indeed.

[Eva-Maria]: Well, then, welcome. [laughs]

[Carine:] To the beautiful and sunny Edinburgh!

[Eva-Maria:] Yeah, glad you’re enjoying this.

[Carine:] It never rains. [laughs]

[Eva-Maria:] So yeah, but let’s dive right in while you’re here. So, how about you tell us a bit about your research? What are you working on right now?

[Helen:] Well, there are a couple of projects going on at the moment, one of which is a project on acquisition of Icelandic Sign Language. This is the main project for my sabbatical year, which is why I’m in Edinburgh at the moment. And the other project is on formal properties of American Sign Language and I’m looking at the structure of the nominal domain. I’m looking at mass count distinction and coordination.

[Carine:] That is very cool!

[Helen:] I agree! [laughs]

[Eva-Maria:] Yeah, super interesting. So, how did you develop your interest in linguistics, language sciences? Like, when did that start?

[Helen:] Oh, linguistics and language sciences in general? So I grew up in the Soviet Union. And as you might know, in the Soviet Union, most people spoke Russian irrespective of where they actually lived. And I was always puzzled by that. So it didn’t matter where you went; I grew up in Ukraine, didn’t matter where you went in the Soviet Union, everybody always spoke Russian! Some people also spoke some other languages and I was always puzzled by that. So I thought, well, I want to know, how is it that people manage to speak Russian so well? So I thought I’d study that. That’s basically how that happened.

[Eva-Maria:] Cool. So personal elements.

[Helen:] Exactly.

[Eva-Maria:] Yeah. Very cool. So you still use Russian? Or … not? [laughs]

[Helen:] Or not Russian? [laughs]

[Eva-Maria:] [laughs] But, yeah, are you an active user of the Russian language?

[Helen:]  Yes, I am fairly active user of Russian language, although my Russian is not as good as it ever was. Obviously, I’m not an active participant in the Russian speaking community, unfortunately, in the US. So it has attrited quite a bit. My other language is Ukrainian. I grew up in Ukraine. My Ukrainian has attrited quite a bit. These days I have almost no lexical recall. It’s unfortunate. I’m sure if, you know, I’m sure given some support, it would come back. We know how this works. That’s, that’s really sad for the language. But that’s what that is.

[Carine:] Yeah. It’s just one of those things that if you don’t use it, you kind of lose it. But over time it does it as you said, it’ll come back. So is it just that the area that you’re living at the moment there just isn’t a Ukrainian population?

[Helen:] Well, actually, so I live in Connecticut. Connecticut has a fairly robust Ukrainian population. And I just have not pursued my Ukrainian. That said, I have traveled quite a bit in the US and where I had lived before there was no Ukrainian. And I left my Ukrainian behind probably about sixth grade and have not returned to it. And that may be part of the reason.

[Carine:] Ah, yeah. There’s something about when you get older, you’re a new adult in a community.

[Helen:] Exactly. Yeah.

[Carine:] I, personally, for myself, my Finnish is very basic. It’s like under the age of four. So I can ask you if you want a sandwich or something like that but…

[Helen:] Precisely, it’s just like that. Yeah.

[Carine:] Wow. Yeah. So, now you’re not really focusing on spoken languages? So you’re mostly working on sign languages, right?

[Helen:] That’s correct.

[Carine:] How so? How did you initially create an interest in studying sign languages? Was it just like you just saw it one day and it was fascinating, or was it like kinda of a slow burn into the sign languages?

[Helen:]  Well, really, it’s a fairly interesting story. When I started my PhD program, I actually thought it was going to return to Ukrainian. I went to the University of Connecticut to study with Željko Bošković who is a fairly well known Slavicist. And so I thought, well, I’m going to study syntax of Russian and Ukrainian. And this would give me a chance to return to this Ukrainian that I thought I had forgotten. And that is where I caught up where I encountered American Sign Language and its acquisition and its syntax. And I thought, oh my goodness, what is this?! And the person who later became a supervisor, one of the supervisors of my PhD program, had just written a grant to study bimodal bilingual acquisition. And she was teaching a course on such issues. I enrolled in the course. And I became fascinated with the topic. And I have not looked back since.

[Carine:] Oh, wow. That’s really amazing. Is it – Was that where you studied your PhD? Was there a large Deaf community in the area or?

[Helen:] There’s a fairly sizable Deaf community in, you know, around University of Connecticut in Connecticut, because American Sign Language is actually born in Connecticut.

[Carine:] Oh!

[Helen:] American Sign Language was born at the American School for the Deaf.

[Eva-Maria:] Oh wow!

[Carine:] And that’s in Connecticut!

[Helen:] It is in Connecticut, in Hartford, Connecticut, which is actually four miles away from the school where I currently teach.

[Carine:] Oh, wow. Okay. I know… Isn’t American Sign Language, I think the closest to French Sign Language. Is that true?

[Helen:]  Well, it is pretty close to French Sign Language. Well, in so far as things are close to anything [laughs] it is related to French Sign Languages. Yeah.

[Carine:] Wow. So this is how you initially became interested in sign language? So did you then take courses in sign language? How did you learn it? Is it just you got to the communities? Did you take classes? What did you do?

[Helen:]  Yeah. So I approached Diane Lillo-Martin, that was the professor in question. I approached Diane, and I said: “Diane, how do I get to be the research assistant in this incredible looking project?” and she said: “Well, you have to learn about the language and you have to study the language itself!”. So that is what I did. I enrolled in courses, and I pursued this interest, both professionally and personally. And that’s what happened.

[Carine:] Cool

[Eva-Maria:] Super cool. Yeah, so do you still sign?

[Helen:]  I do. Yeah, I do. Although, I must say that my sign is nowhere near as what I would like for it to be, right? Because being a researcher of the language is not the same as being the user of the language, unfortunately, although, obviously, one would want this to be the same.

[Carine:]  Mhmm Yeah, it would be nice if we could have the sign languages be more visible in our regular, like, everyday lives? You really don’t see it that often. It’s quite surprising.

[Helen:] Of course, well, it’s not entirely surprising, right? Given the fact that …

[Carine:] … it’s a small population. ish

[Helen:] Well, it’s not that small, there’s a number of deaf people around us but the hearing community is much more dominant than the deaf community, right?

[Carine:] Yeah..

[Helen:] The issues of audism — that’s the common term — prevail still, and the hearing community has been known to oppress the deaf community quite a bit. And, if you know, we don’t see deafness, we don’t know it exists!

[Eva-Maria:] Yeah. So a lot of people not in the deaf community are probably quite oblivious to the fact that there might be signing people around them and they don’t even recognize it as such.

[Helen:] Yeah, obviously, it’s not visible.

[Eva-Maria:] Yeah. Although it should be.

[Carine:] It really should be. Yeah.

[Eva-Maria:] Yeah.

[Helen:] But you can’t see deafness, right? You can’t see deafness because it’s not apparent on one’s face, it’s not apparent on one’s body, and therefore you don’t know the people around you may be using a different language.

[Eva-Maria:] Yeah. That’s really interesting. So when you started learning ASL, did you notice that it had an effect on your spoken language? Or your gestures?

[Helen:]  Oh, absolutely. So not only did I notice this, lots of people around me noticed this. So it turns out, and research also says this, that people who learn how to sign start changing their gestures. And the question, of course, is why that might be? And it’s not entirely surprising, right? Hearing people use gestures and sign languages go through a gestural system. And therefore, it’s not strange that the gestural system might change. But also other things started happening. All my other languages that I wasn’t very good at started changing as well. Right. So I would try to make a sentence in Spanish and all of a sudden, my sentence would resemble the sentence in American Sign Language, right?

[Eva-Maria:] Wow.

[Helen:] So these sentences were bleeding into one another.

[Carine:]  Do you mean by, like, sentence structure or?

[Helen:] Sentence structure that’s right.

[Carine:] Oh wow.

[Helen:] Yes. And so this is what we know about third and fourth language acquisition, right? The languages go: “Where are we going next? Where are we reaching?”. So this was interesting to observe. And that made me look to L3 acquisition, for instance, which is now something that I’m… I continue being fascinated by.

[Eva-Maria:] That’s what I’m working on. [laughs]

[Helen:] Great!

[Carine:] You’ve kind of spoken about our next question, which is about when um people learn sign languages, do their gestures — and that’s when they’re speaking — does that change? Is it, would you say from your experience, that your gestures when you were speaking start to look more like actual signs? Or would you actually sign at the same time? Or how would you say what… what do you think that change for the gestures is?

[Helen:] So research, research says both things, right? So it depends on the level of proficiency. People behave either one way or the other. So, folks who are just starting to sign become those people whose gestures amend a little bit, right? They, like, look funny a little, right? But we also know this from L2 research on gestures, gestures for hearing, learning spoken language. So we know gesture system changes in general. And you expect sign languages to effect this. My students point out, I’ve never watched my hands but my students point out that my hands look like they’re trying to sign

[Carine & Eva-Maria:] [Laughs]

[Helen:] like when I talk, especially when I talk about sign languages, like all of a sudden I start signing and talking simultaneously. Now, also research suggests that if you’re a highly proficient signer, and you have been signing from fairly early age, let’s say you’re hearing child of deaf adults, you are, in this respect, you’re different than even a proficient signer who started late. So there must be proficiency effect or age of acquisition effect here.

[Carine:]  Yeah, it’s always it’s really interesting cause I know that in the UK, this might be a little bit wrong, but if I’m right, what it is is that most of the acquisition of sign languages in school, is Sign Supported English. And then usually it’s once they hit 18 and they’re like, more engrossed or ingrained — I’m not sure which one of those words is the right one within the deaf community — that’s when they actually start learning British Sign Language. So it’s interesting in that way, also that their education also changes the way that they speak a little bit. So like, if they’re lucky enough to start learning a sign language from a younger age, it’s possible that even their sign language when they start learning proper BSL is also already a little bit different. That’s another fun thing to look at, isn’t it?

[Helen:] That seems, that seems strange. So they just Sign Supported English until they’re 18?

[Carine:] I think it depends on the school. I’m… I wish I knew a little bit more about the education system.

[Helen:]  That’s not what happens in the US.

[Carine:] Yeah, right.

[Eva-Maria:] Since you do research on American Sign Language, you probably get the question quite a bit whether sign languages in general are mutually intelligible. So if a user of American Sign Language travels to Europe, whether they’d be able to understand Italian Sign Language, for example, so, how many languages sign languages are there? And what is … well… is there such a thing as mutual intelligibility amongst the languages?

[Helen:] This is an interesting question, right? So, I usually get a slightly different question. I usually get: “Is there a universal sign language?”. And the answer to that is a resounding no.

[Carine:] Yeah, that was a question we were gonna ask.

[Helen:] Yeah exactly, I-I like yours a bit better, right?

[Eva-Maria:] [laughs] Thank you

[Helen:] Is there mutual intelligibility? Right. It is in a way related, but it’s not the same question, right? So let me back up and start with mine, if you don’t mind, the one that I usually get. Well, I mean, why would we expect a universal sign language? If we expect a universal sign language, we should also expect a universal spoken language. We don’t have universal spoken language for exactly the same reason we don’t have a universal sign language: wherever we have a group of people, they develop their own language, and therefore, those languages will not be mutually intelligible, because people are not next to one another, right? That would be sort of the idea. Okay, so now let’s get to sign languages. How many are there? We don’t really know, depends on how one counts, anywhere between 138 and 380.

[Carine:]  That’s such a small range! (said sarcastically)

[Helen:] It depends on how you count, right?

[Carine:] Yeah.

[Helen:] There’s, you know, development of these languages happens all day, every day, right? We keep discovering them in various places, in fairly isolated places where there’s congenital deafness for a variety of reasons, indigenous marriages, but is there mutual intelligibility? There is to some degree mutual intelligibility between languages like LSF, which is French Sign Language and Italian Sign Language, and perhaps, maybe to some degree, American Sign Language. Now, why might that be? Well, is there mutual intelligibility between Italian and Spanish? The answer is sort of yes…

[Eva-Maria:] Yeah…

[Helen:] …these language s are related. Now, does that mean that everybody understands 100%? The answer is no. Right. But languages are topologically related and is the distance, however we measure this distance, between French Sign Language and Italian Sign Language closer than the distance between French Sign Language and American Sign Language? Quite likely to be the case. Why? Because languages are closer geographically…

[Eva-Maria:] Geographically, yeah.

[Helen:] …and there is an extra infusion into American Sign Language than we see from Italian Sign Language versus French sign language, and this is how kind of these measuring devices work, right? This work needs to continue, it needs to continue, more of it needs to be done. There has been, you know, robust amount of historical linguistics that has been done on spoken languages, but not the same amount has been done in sign languages, just simply because the field is so young, right? The field itself is, you know, less than hundred years old, right? It’s just a much younger field. So there’s more to do here. Is there mutual intelligibility? Yes. But is it only due typological differences or typological similarities? Well, also maybe not. Because if we think about this, there is something fundamentally similar to all of us human beings that use gestural systems, right? Sound language is a gesture. I’m not saying that sound language is a pantomime. I’m not saying that they’re all gesture based. But there are some things that we all use when we when we utilize our bodies that spoken languages do not use right? Things that are just iconic, right? So if I show you a sign for tree, you may not figure out that that’s a sign for tree. But as soon as I tell you that that’s a sign for tree you go: “ Oh, that’s right! That makes sense…

[Eva-Maria:] “That makes sense!”

[Helen:] …That makes all sorts of sense”. Right? And if I show you a sign for deaf, that has to do with ears and mouth and you’re like: “Oh wait a minute, that may be a sign for deaf”. Well, in American Sign Language, that’s a sign for deaf, but in British Sign Language, that’s a sign for hearing.

[Eva-Maria:] Ahh, oh wow.

[Helen:]  Exactly. Complete difference.

[Eva-Maria:] Oh that is…. yeah.

[Helen:]  Complete difference.

[Eva-Maria:] Complete opposites. Yeah.

[Helen:]  But it relies on these iconic pieces that you could sort of pull in the real world in the same way you cannot do in spoken language, as you just point to certain things, right? So there may be this mutual intelligibility that relies on these items in the world that we can pull on.

[Eva-Maria:] Yeah.

[Helen:] So perhaps that’s where the mutual intelligibility might kind of come into place. So, the short answer to this question is, there may be some mutual intelligibility that people have called the dinner paradox, where you can put deaf people into the room, put them around the dinner table, and after a certain amount of time, they will figure out a way to communicate…

[Carine & Eva-Maria:] [laughs]

[Helen:]…It won’t be perfect, but it will figure something out.

[Eva-Maria:] Yeah.

[Helen:] Right, the way hearing people just won’t be able to.

[Eva-Maria:] Yeah.

[Carine:] So yeah, speaking about mutual intelligibility. There are like all these small things that we have in spoken language. We also talked about the gestures as well. So do those kinds of like, I guess, probably, it’s more about culture than it is actually about the spoken language itself. But do, like, certain sign languages have more characteristics to their specific cultures? Like, do in some way, American Sign Language users have bigger signs like denoting that they’re louder for a stereotype? Or do Italians maybe like, do they have more certain types of expressions that, like, they just use in a faster pace? Like, because stereotypically Italians use their hands more. Does that kind of culturalness translate to sign languages as well? Or is that just completely ignored?

[Helen:] So the speed I can’t really tell you anything about but, and loudness, as it were, I may be able to say something about and also, the cultural specific signs, perhaps I can. So let’s think a little bit about how sign language vocabularies might be born, right? So how do we, how do we get sign languages? In general, right? So if you think about how sign languages may be, might be evolving in principle, right? Especially in the middle of a hearing community. So, you have a couple of deaf people or one or two deaf people and they’re meandering about or they’re existing in the world of the hearing people that are gesturing. So, they will take on gesture items that are gestures already for the hearing people, right? So this would be points, obviously people point all day every day. But also in, you know, in Spanish speaking countries, there are signs for cheap, right? And this has something to do with touching the elbow.

[Carine:] [laughs]

[Helen:] In-In Italy, people use this, what’s called artichoke, like you grab your hand and you kind of fold it together and then you shake your hand and you go: “What is going on here?”. And then you ask this question, right? People do various kinds of things that carry semantic information. It’s not sort of your B-gesture, but it has this semantic information. And deaf people observe this and they take this into their communication system. And we know this, we know the development of various sign languages, particularly new sign languages proceed as such, this work is done by Marie Cupola and various other people that have documented emergence on languages. And so what we might assume would happen is that, such pieces would turn into lexical items. So that’s one piece, right? And you would look to such lexical items and you go:  “Oh, this is just what we saw as gestures in the hearing community”. But now they’ve taken on the life of their own. And they may mean something similar, but not exactly. And then they grammaticalise. And then they have a very particular distribution, and they’re no longer anything like what the hearing community attributes to them, even though they may look like it a little bit, but they have very different flavour to them. So that’s one piece. But there’s something to be said about, also, sort of what you call the loudness.

[Eva-Maria:] [laughs]

[Carine:] Is that a thing that exists? Yeah

[Helen:] Well, it very much does. So, for example, or size of space, what would loudness translate to. So it’s the size of the signing space, for example. In every sign language, just like in every spoken language, one might expect dialects. Among American signers, we have at least two dialects. And that is what has been called mainstream ASL, and black ASL.

[Carine:]  So in spoken languages, when we have phonology, we’re specifically talking about the speech sounds that we’re making all those individual sounds or like phonemes. So sign languages since they don’t have sounds being made, what exactly does the phonology of sign languages mean and what does it entail?

[Helen:] Yes, the phonology of sign languages works very similar to the phonology of spoken languages. Phonology is really not about sounds, right? So it sounds like it would be about sounds, but it’s actually not, right? As soon as you start learning about phonology, in the first 20 minutes of that course, you realize it’s not really about sound, it’s about the contrasts, it’s about what’s happening inside the mouth. It’s really not, you know, about these pieces that you can break the sound to, but your  perceptual acuity, right? So it’s the same for sign languages. So phonology of sign languages, is about how you look at contrasting parts of the sign. And so what turns out matters here is whether the contrast is in handshape, or in location, or in movement, or orientation. These are the pieces that matter, right? And whether it’s the movement that is at the heart of the syllable or something else, and how can you tell? And what rules govern such changes, right? This is in the end, becomes what phonology in sound languages is about. Everything else is exactly the same.

[Carine:]  Would you say that the, sorry, that the phonemes for, I know in American Sign Language you sign mother on your chin and you sign father on your forehead? Is that correct?

[Helen:] That’s right.

[Carine:] So, is that considered a phoneme, you know, the bottom half? I don’t know if it’s the bottom half of your face or if it’s your chin specifically. Or is the top half of your face, then is masculine? Is that considered a phoneme? Or is that, just specifically positioning?

[Helen:] So it’s not about masculine or feminine. When you say masculine or feminine it’s not really phonemes, right? Masculine and feminine, would be gender features, right? And so that’s slightly different kind of information. Now, we might want to ask what’s on the face? Or where the position or what position of the face you have would kind of give you the gender information? That’s not phonological right? Gender information is morphological. It’s something else, right?

[Carine:] Good point.

[Helen:] Now, can we say that American Sign Language kind of gives you that information anywhere on the body? The answer to that is a no. Now other languages have been argued to provide such information for some nouns, at least. So, Japanese Sign Language does. Japanese Sign Language has gender for some lexical items, but not for others. American Sign Language doesn’t. To my understanding British Sign Language or Icelandic Sign Language doesn’t either, right? American Sign Language doesn’t either. It’s just a pure accident. Well, it’s not entirely pure, but it’s fairly accidental that some things are on the on the top right of the hand of the face and other things on the bottom part of the face and some things are on the shoulders and other things are elsewhere. Some of these things are iconic and others are not, some things are completely arbitrary and other things are not.

[Eva-Maria:] Okay, so you just mentioned that sign languages consist of so much more than just normal gestures, right? And I would assume that people, like myself that are not very familiar with sign languages, would always assume it’s just about gestures. But it’s so much more than that, right? With the direction and orientation and the movement and even mouthing, right? Tell us a bit more about all these aspects and how they tie in together.

[Helen:]  Yes, so lots of people when they first think about signing, first think about learning how to sign they think: “Oh, this is just going to be learning what’s on the hands”. And research suggests that, particularly, you know, second language learners of sign languages, when you start sort of testing them and you start looking to where their eyes are pointing, the eyes are like, glued to the hands.

[Carine & Eva-Maria:] [laughs]

[Helen:] Oh, my goodness, I got to figure out what’s what’s on the hands, right? But turns out, the better you get at the sign, the farther away from the hands your eyes wonder. Turns out, that’s because what’s on the hands is only part of the story. The other part of the story is called non manual. And non manual information involves what’s happening on the face, which is eyebrows, and what may be on the nose, whether or not there’s some squint, so whether or not there’s lip movements, whether or not your tongue is protruding, showing you the different the adverbial difference between how people walk, for instance.

[Eva-Maria:] Wow.

[Carine:]  Wait, you use your tongue to explain how people walk?

[Helen:] That’s right. You could actually kind of put your tongue out and show whether things are done leisurely versus not.

[Carine: ] Oh, wow.

[Helen:]  Yeah. The other thing is whether your body shifts to one side or the other, that assumes a character in the story and when you shift roads. Other things…

[Eva-Maria:] I’m mind blown

[Helen:] … Other things that occur is mouthing as you point out, so the difference between certain items could be simply mouthing, and all of a sudden, you switched categories, right? And so in Icelandic Sign Language, as far as our data can tell, now, this is fresh off the grill data.

[Carine & Eva-Maria:] [laughs]

[Helen:] It looks like the difference between nouns and verbs is quite literally just mouthing.

[Carine:] Oh, wow.

[Helen:] Right. So, if that’s not present, you can’t tell the difference.

[Eva-Maria:] Wow.

[Helen:] So there’s a lot that’s going on. And what that really means is, if you are a proficient signer, you got to look not just on the hand,  you got to incorporate and integrate all sorts of information. So proficient signers use their peripheral view as much as they do sort of focused viewpoint.

[Eva-Maria] Yeah. Has there been studies on like eye tracking of proficient speakers because…

[Helen:] Yes

[Eva-Maria:] That would be so interesting

[Helen:]  Yes there’s plenty.

[Carine:] That is actually , yeah.

[Helen:] Yeah, so lots of work has been done in various labs, many labs look at this, for various sign languages. So people have looked at this in the Sign Language of the Netherlands and British Sign Language, though a lot of this kind of work is done at DCAL in London. A lot of this work is done in Germany. A ton of such work is done in in California in Karen Emmorey’s lab.

[Eva-Maria:]  I know what I’ll be reading this afternoon

[Carine:] Yup!

[Eva-Maria:] [laughs]

[Carine:]  Yeah. These are bedtime reads now. So other than those individuals who have, you know, hearing disabilities, deafness, can sign languages aid, those who have other types of language impairments, or language developmental issues, such as maybe someone who’s autistic, or maybe someone who has selective mutism. Can we use sign languages for that? Or does that kind of change what exactly the sign language is?

[Helen:]  So let me let me address the first thing you said. I heard you say hearing disabilities.

[Carine:] Yeah, I was trying my best not to say that.

[Helen:] Yeah [elongated]

[Carine:] I had written it down.

[Helen:] Yeah. No, I understand. So lots of people say such things. And I appreciate now the opportunity to to like take a two second detour on that.

[Eva-Maria:] Please, educate us.

[Helen:] Most deaf people. Well, all deaf people that I know and many other probably will say something like this: “I’m not disabled. I’m deaf. It’s not a hearing disability”.

[Carine:] Oh, is there’s a difference, I’m assuming, or at least in my mind that I’ve created a difference, between deafness and hard of hearing.

[Helen:] Yes.

[Carine:] So hard of hearing I would say is kind of a hearing disability. But, it’s not.

[Helen:] You should probably ask the deaf people. But the deaf people that I work with, would not say that.

[Carine:] Okay.

[Helen:] They would say that they’re just hard of hearing.

[Carine:] Okay.

[Helen:] But none of them would call themselves hearing disabled.

[Carine:] Good to know.

[Helen:] Because being hearing disabled suggests that they’re broken hearing people and they will tell you that they’re not that.

[Eva-Maria:] Yeah.

[Carine:] Yeah.

[Eva-Maria:] We wouldn’t call ourselves visually disabled.

[Carine:] Yeah from wearing glasses.

[Helen:] They might call you broken deaf people.

[Carine:] [laughs] I’ll allow it.

[Helen:] [laughs] Yeah. Right. But that’s how that would go. Yeah. All right. So here’s one. But, so that, let’s go. Yeah, so no more no more hearing impaired, no more hearing disabled. These are all deaf people, deaf or hard of hearing is the preferred term in the deaf community.

[Carine:] Mhmm.

[Eva-Maria:] Okay, perfect.

[Helen:] Okay. Um, so your point outside of people who are deaf and hard of hearing, is there anybody else in any other population for whom sign language is a good option. Right? That’s your question. I think this is a great language for anyone to the degree that we think multilingualism is a great idea for anyone, for any reason, let’s go ahead and do it. So, we know that it is a full fledged language that goes through a different modality and modality that may not be disordered.

[Carine:] Can you quickly just describe what a modality means?

[Helen:] Sure, we have the spoken modality and the gestural modality. So that’s it, right?

[Carine:] Yup, perfect.

[Helen:] Yeah. So there may be some issues with one of the modalities for whatever reason, right? Some clinical issues, right? So something wrong for whatever reason, physically, with spoken language modality, something wrong with vocal tract articulators. But nothing is wrong with the gestural modality. So why not give the child a language through the other modality, right? We know that multilingualism is good for the kid, the kid is going to get language an other way. Right. So, in my view, it’s another language, in my view, it’s going to be good for the kid one way or another. It will aids in the communication strategy. It adds an additional set of communication strategies. It expands vocabulary items, we now know, research suggests that for people with various types of clinical profiles, adding a sign language aids. The answer to that is yes.

[Carine:]  [laughs], Too long didn’t read, yes, it definitely is a good idea to advocate for everyone, really, to learn a sign language. I’d actually I’d written a little comment here because I actually specifically had written little D deaf and large D Deaf. Big D Deaf also. Yeah. Which is not, I guess, since I’ve taken two terms in university learning American Sign Language. So, I have a very small in in that. Would you want to describe what the differences between the two of them are? Because I feel like you might be able to give a short description of that a little bit better.

[Helen:] So you asking me the difference between the small D deaf..

[Carine:] Yes.

[Helen:] …and a capital D Deaf?

[Carine:] Yeah.

[Helen:] Very simple. So the question Carine is asking what is the difference between Big D Deaf and small D deaf? The answer is very simple. Traditionally, at least a small D deaf refers to the hearing status. The capital D Deaf refers to the cultural deaf person, right, a member of a cultural deaf community.

[Carine:] Yeah, it’s, um, I, I’ve spoken about deafness a little bit on, like, online, in forums and things like that. And I’ve had people who are just like: “Why are you doing this?”. And I was like: “Oh, I’m not the person to definitely say this for sure. But like, this is what I know about it a little bit”. But yeah, so it’s, it’s really amazing, because it’s like, I feel like a lot of the general hearing population don’t realize that deafness is also a part of a community. It’s a culture. So, those kinds of things would be great, to have the opportunity to see that more often.

[Helen:]  And, you know, there’s, there’s been a, there’s been quite a bit of a discussion of whether or not this is something that should be continuously used in the literature. I am not the right person to be having this discussion with, right? Here’s this hearing woman so, yeah, bring a deaf person to this podcast and that would be better conversation. That said, there is something we should be keeping in mind, right? There’s this constant discussion about deafness, right? And deafness usually points to something about the body, right? It’s a body based politicking. It’s body based discussion. And therefore, in about two minutes, it turns into a conversation about disability where deafness with a big D is about cultural identification. It’s about the language that’s used in the community. It’s about cultural references. It’s about identity. So, can one be both hearing and deaf simultaneously? Deaf with a capital D? That’s an interesting question to be asking a deaf person, right? But can one be deaf with a small D? And be hearing, culturally, right? That’s also the same kind of question to be asking, right? Because one is about the body and the other one is about the cultural identity.

[Carine:]  Yeah. Which kind of, very well, leads us into our next question, which is, there’s a bit of a controversy about cochlear implants. And, you know, teaching young children sign languages. So why do you think it is that, like, parents, teachers and doctors advocate for cochlear implants instead of teaching young children sign language?

[Helen:]  [Long inhale] Well…

[Carine:] [laughs] That’s a big question, right? It’s a big ask.

[Helen:] It’s a big one. Well, I think, I think, I mean, we live in the hearing world, right? And most people who are parents, and doctors and teachers are hearing people, who think that everybody should be hearing. And they can’t quite frankly, envision a world where somebody might not want to be hearing. Like, how is it possible that you wouldn’t want to be hearing because certainly, if you are not hearing, you must be full of sorrow? [laughs] My ASL instructor tells the story of when she had her second child who was deaf, and she herself is fifth generation deaf. And her husband is deaf.

[Carine:] Oh wow.

[Helen:] A second generation deaf, if I recall correctly. You know, she said the doctor walked into the room with the baby who had just been diagnosed deaf, right, because it’s a neonatal test, and said: “I’m so sorry to tell you the child is deaf”.

[Carine:] Oh my.

[Helen:] Right? And she looked at him and she’s like: look around!

[Carine:] Yeah!

[Carine & Eva-Maria:] [laughs]

[Helen:] Like say congratulations. Welcome the family, right? But people don’t get it, right? I mean, I don’t know that the doctor meant to be malicious but people just think, nobody can imagine the world in which somebody would just not want to be accessing this wonderful hearing world, it part of the reason right?

[Carine:] It’s also a common misconception that most deaf people are completely deaf as well, right?

[Helen:] Well, but that’s not the point, right? I don’t know about that. I just think about the fact. So the big part of the story, is that just about everybody who advises are hearing people who think that everybody should be hearing. Like, how could they not?

[Carine:] Yeah.

[Helen:] So the other part of the story, I think, is that, there is this misunderstanding still, I believe, that ASL or any sign language is a natural language, right? And not just a communication system that somehow kind of gets the child to somethin, right, that’s spoken-y, right? In lieu of something else, right? And also, I think there is this lack of knowledge, which I think we, as linguists, need to sort of continue pounding sometimes into the heads of general population, that the first year of life is the most important year of life for a child. Because in reality, nobody to my knowledge, nobody is allowed to implant the child until almost the end of the first year of life.

[Carine:] Okay, so they have to be over the age of one.

[Helen:] They have to be close to the age of one or in some countries over the age of one.

[Carine:] Okay, okay.

[Helen:] Well, so what this means is that, hearing parents who choose to pursue the cochlear implant, will not be communicating with the child for the first year of their life, because the vast majority of parents who are presented with this cochlear implant…

[Eva-Maria:] option.

[Helen:] Option – they’re presented with it as an option. Yeah, right. It’s this other option. It’s not sort of, let’s incorporate sign and,

[Carine:] It’s an either or.

[Helen:] It’s an either or, and so this, this is really a problem, right? So that’s part of the story, I think.

[Eva-Maria:] So, since you mentioned that the first year is quite important, right, in the child’s development. And it’s always said that the younger you are, the easier it is to learn a language. And that’s debatable.

[Helen:] Not entirely true, yea.

[Eva:] Exactly. So, would you say that if you want to learn a sign language, you should start rather early as well? Or can you be successful? Like, can you become  a proficient user of sign language? Even if I were to start as a mature student?

[Helen:]  You can become a proficient user of any language at any age. So I must say, my oldest student when I used to teach English as an additional language, my oldest student to ever be enrolled in my class, was an Argentinian woman by the name of Elsa, who was 73 years old at the time.

[Eva-Maria:] Fantastic.

[Carine:] Good on her!

[Helen:] Right. Yeah. So that said, sign languages are just like spoken languages, in that they’re languages, you can start when ever you wish, and you in some sense, have a leg up because you have already been using your gestural system for a wee bit.

[Carine:] Yeah, that’s very true.

[Helen:] Not that it makes it easier to learn a sign language, right? Because it’s another language. So, it doesn’t matter. But in some sense, you already have a start, somewhere. So that said, the research suggests that in some ways, second language learners who are older, do better than kids in just learning additional languages? Because they are equipped with some things that kids are not equipped with, because they can you know, classify things. Arguably the same goes for sign languages. We don’t actually know about that quite yet, because the field is so young, but it wouldn’t be entirely surprising,  if we were to find that to be happening.

[Eva-Maria:] That’s very interesting. And since we’re on that topic, do you think that there’s a similar process? I don’t know if that’s even comparable. But would you be able to compare the learning curve of someone who’s learning a sign language to someone who’s learning a spoken language? Like would the process be similar? And like starting with vocab? And then maybe word order? And yeah, I don’t know.

[Helen:]  So actually, people are, in fact, doing this kind of work in two different ways. One of which is a cross-modality, which is sort of like hearing people learning sign language. So going from one modality to another, right? Or signing people learning written languages, although this complicates matters, because you actually have to learn literacy on top, right? So that’s a problem. And another kind of research along these lines is the kind of work that I do, which is people who already know one sign language, and they have to go into another sign language. So the argument here is that the process will be quite similar. But what that looks like, the field is a bit too unplowed for this, but it looks like it’s probably going to look very similar.

[Eva-Maria:] Well, maybe we’ll inspire some people to actually get into this with this podcast. I hope so. I’m inspired.

[Carine:] So talking about your research, what is it that makes Icelandic Sign Language different from other sign languages?

[Helen:]  So Icelandic sign language is in some sense, very similar to other sign languages in that it is a European sign language, it is a language indigenous to the place where the people are. So it hasn’t traveled anywhere. It is minoritized, doubly so just like other sign languages. It is also endangered. Icelandic sign language is used by about 300 deaf people and another close to 2000 of hearing people. But it’s also very special, in that, Icelandic Sign Language, it’s also very similar to other sign languages in that it’s probably about a little less than 200 years old. So it’s quite young. Yeah. It’s very young. But it’s also very special, in that, Icelandic Sign Language is, by law, considered now to be the first language of the deaf community and the hearing family members so anybody who is deaf and hearing family members are eligible for instruction in Icelandic Sign Language.

[Carine:] That’s fantastic.

[Helen:] That’s right. It’s one thing that’s special and so if you’re born deaf at about a year one or so you start school in Icelandic Sign Language. And if your parents know another sign language, you functionally grow up bilingual in multiple sign languages.

[Carine:] Bimodal bilingual.

[Helen:] No, you grow up unimodal bilingual

[Carine:] [laughs] Sorry. Yeah, that’s right.

[Helen:] That’s right. And if you were fitted with a cochlear implant for instance, and you learn Icelandic on top of it. You are also growing up bimodal bilingual. Because you’re also learning Icelandic. So that makes it kind of special.

[Carine:] Yeah, that’s fantastic.

[Helen:] The other thing that’s very special about Iceland and Icelandic Sign Language, is that all sign languages are like spoken languages, passed along from caregivers to children, right? So from parents to children, that’s how languages are passed along. And for sign languages, in particular, this usually means families with hereditary deafness, right? So Deaf of Deaf is how we get languages to move along. Well, in the history of Icelandic Sign Language, there hasn’t been a history of deafness, there has been only two Deaf families, Deaf of Deaf families in the history of the entire language.

[Carine:] What?

[Helen:] The first deaf of deaf family was in the 19th century. And the second Deaf of deaf child is currently six months old.

[Eva-Maria:] What?

[Helen:] So all of the rest of the Deaf folk in Iceland have been receiving Icelandic Sign Language instruction from either deaf people, or hearing people who have themselves been learning it from second language learners, right? So the language is constantly in a bit of a flux. Now it’s a stable language. It’s got its own word order. It’s got its own vocabulary items. But it’s constantly pressured by all of these new inventions.

[Carine:]  That kind of transmission is so different than spoken languages. Wow.

[Helen:] Well maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. We don’t know, right? And that’s what makes it super special.

[Eva-Maria:] That is very special.

[Helen:] Given the fact that it is, by law, the first language of the country for this particular population. And yet, it’s constantly bubbling in this very special way. So that is the reason Icelandic Sign Language is so very special.

[Eva-Maria:] Has someone been observing the change, has somebody actually been kind of monitoring the change, or?

[Helen:] Well, my research collaborators and I have started doing so. So there’s a fairly new project, we’re kind of paying attention to that. I am looking at the kids in this group, of whom there aren’t that many, but such that, as that group is, we’re looking at what’s going on, because as you might imagine, kids are the ones that are doing all of the inventions. And the vast majority of the kids at the moment in Iceland are bilingual. So you imagine that there will be a vast infusion into the lexicon. So we are, I can’t wait to see what will happen.

[Carine:]  So exciting. Yeah. I can’t wait for the read this paper.

[Helen:]  That’s right.

[Eva-Maria:] That’s really cool. I have one more question. Because you mentioned word order, for example, that Icelandic Sign Language has its own word order and everything? Does the sign language of a place or a country, does that kind of correlate with the spoken language of the place? Or is that completely different?

[Helen:] There’s absolutely no correlation between the spoken language and the sign language of the place. So the biggest example, or the best example I know of that, is Italy. Italian Sign Language is head-final, and Italian is head-initial. What that means, in lay terms, is the word orders are basically the opposite.

[Eva-Maria:] That makes it hard for interpreters, I’m guessing.

[Helen:] I mean, you know, the job of an interpreter is take a structure of one language and map it on the structure of the other one, and why does it matter?

[Eva-Maria:] Yeah, that’s true. I just think that it’s a difficult job with any language.

[Helen:] Yeah, it’s a difficult job in any language. It’s a different kind of a job in a bimodal situation. Because I mean, perhaps, in some sense, a little bit easier, because you’re not hearing yourself talk, right? If you’re doing simultaneous interpretation, in a unimodal kind of scenario. So either two spoken languages or two sign languages. We don’t know what that looks like sign to sign that has never been done to my knowledge, but there’s plenty of research on spoken language interpretation. And we know that one of the hardest parts of this is phonological loop that you tie up because you’re hearing yourself talk. And that part goes away, because you don’t hear yourself talk. Thank goodness, right? So everything else is exactly the same.

[Carine:]  So from everything you’ve learned about working with Deaf communities and sign languages and through your research, what would you most like the general public to know?

[Helen:]  What would I like the general public to know? Well, a couple of different things. The most important thing is that sign languages are languages, right? It’s not a communication system for broken people, right? It’s a language. And therefore, to the degree that we think multilingualism is a good thing, sign languages will qualify every single time. That’s one. The other thing that is just as important, or perhaps even more important, is that 95% of deaf kids are born to hearing families, the vast majority of those hearing families never learn how to sign. If you think about that, you realise that the vast majority of deaf kids become language deprived. This is the biggest problem of them all. Because if we were to allow a bunch of hearing children to be language deprived, their parents would go to jail. But for the deaf children of hearing parents, that’s called parental choice.

[Carine:]  Yep. What is it? Do you think is that stopping these parents from learning the sign language of their country and using it?

[Helen:] Lack of funds, lack of obligatory funds for such situations. So imagine, if, for example, the country said: “Oh, look, you have a deaf baby. So how about instead of those five hours that you were supposed to go to work, we’re going to pay you these five hours to go to class, to learn the language that you could use with your child?”. Imagine then if you do so, because if you were to do so, your child would grow up knowing the language, you would be able to communicate with this child, this child is that much more likely to become a productive member of the society, go to work, integrate, everybody’s happier. That would be a different story. That is not what we find growing up, we find segregation remains, oppression remains. This is a problem. And these are the kinds of issues I wish we could make go away, right? One of the, one of the lines of my research has to do with policy and equitable education for deaf and hearing bilingual kids. And this is sort of the story I like to tell, if we just sort of think about how we educate multilingual children, right? If we just change how we educate multilingual children, many societal problems would go away. This is one line of that story.

[Carine:]  Boy, do you think if we started implementing that like, mandatory sign language classes of like, in schools, so that we start at the same age that we would start learning a second language regularly? Do you think that would help mitigate that issue later on, if parents have deaf children, they would already have some of the language knowledge? So do you think that would help the society in helping people actually learn language when they really need it most?

[Helen:]  Well, I  sincerely think that’s the case, right? Especially if what we were doing is not Sign Supported Speech, but actual language teaching, right? We would also be teaching children how to code-switch correctly. We would be making children metalinguistically aware. We would be making children open to various types of abilities. We would be making children open to the fact that the world is full of diversity, right? And full of ways of being. Yeah, I think  that’s a yes.

[Carine:] Well, we’re excited to see where your research comes, because we really hope that it can help us with all this policy. Thank you so much for doing this research. Thank you so much for coming in.

[Eva-Maria:] Thank you very much for being here.

[Helen:] Thank you for having me.

[Carine:] Thanks so much for joining us on this week’s episode with Helen. We’ve really hoped you enjoyed it and that you learned as much as we did. You can find out more about Helen and her research on her faculty page, which you’ll be able to find in a link in the description. You can also find a link to the Bilingualism and English Language Learning Lab, which Helen is the director of, who supports language teachers and learners, where they offer workshops and consultations as well. Thanks so much and Ciao! [Italian for ‘Bye!]


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