Signed languages are not codes – see letter to editor of Washington Post by professor emeritus Ceil Lucas

Nyle DiMarco, a Deaf native user of ASL and popular contestant on America’s Next Top Model, has been making waves in the media lately. One such example is the August 7th article by Yanan Wang, “His modeling photos got him noticed, but didn’t show one thing: He’s deaf” which shared DiMarco’s observations that the Deaf community is a linguistic minority but inaccurately described signed languages as codes.

Ceil Lucas, Professor Emeritus of the Linguistics Department at Gallaudet University, wrote a letter to the editor.

Sign language is not a code; it is a natural language like spoken languages, with all of the characteristics of natural languages. And in this case, we’re talking about American Sign Language (ASL), independent in structure from spoken languages and also distinct from the tens of other sign languages used in deaf communities on the planet, such as British Sign Language (BSL), Auslan ( Australian Sign Language ) and Italian Sign Language (LIS), to name but a few.

Nyle DiMarco, the subject of the article, is a native user of ASL, as are many children around the world, both hearing and deaf, born to deaf parents and into signing families. If ASL and other sign languages are “codes,” then all spoken languages are also “codes,” which is clearly not the case.

We in sign language studies are passionate about this issue because of all of the time and effort we have expended in demonstrating that sign languages are “real” languages and not, in fact, codes of some kind.

The letter can be found here along with Keith Cagle’s letter objecting to the pejorative use of “deaf”. Cagle is an associate professor for Gallaudet University Department of Interpretation.

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LSA Student Internship Opportunity, Fall 2015

 The LSA is seeking applications for the position of Student Intern at its national office in Washington, DC for the Fall 2015 semester (September – December). This is a great opportunity to learn more about the field of linguistics, the professional needs of LSA members, and the LSA’s broader agenda to advance the scientific study of language. This internship also provides exposure to the workings of a small non-profit organization based in the nation’s capital.
Interns will gain experience with writing, research, database management, social science policy, and a variety of administrative tasks. The position is open to undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in programs leading to a degree in linguistics or a related field.
Funding is available to support one part-time position at 18 hours per week, with a $2500 stipend. In order to receive a stipend, applicants must be U.S. citizens or foreign nationals with the appropriate work visa.
Post contributed by doctoral candidate, Carla Morris
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Brown Bag by graduate students on depiction and language fluency in ASL 4/24, 12-1 @SLCC Open Space, Ling Dept

Please join us for our next Brown Bag presentation. Sadi Dudley, Megan Kish, and Derek Vore will be sharing some of their initial findings from the work they have been doing with Dr. Thumann on depiction and language fluency in ASL. The talk will be held in the open area in the linguistics department on April 24th.

topic: Coding Depiction Instances across American Sign Language Proficiency Interview (ASLPI) Assessment Levels
presenters: Research Assistants of Dr. Thumann: Sadi Dudley, Megan Kish, and Derek Vore
when: Friday, April 24, 12 to 1 pm
where: SLCC 3rd floor open area in linguistics department

The presenters of this Brown Bag session worked as research assistants for a pilot study at Gallaudet University, Examining the Use of Depiction across ASLPI Assessment Levels (M. Thumann). This study sought to analyze depiction usage by signers of varying language fluency in order to identify patterns and differences and provide detailed information about depiction usage. Depiction is a term used “…to describe either (a) any act in which one or a set of concepts are made manifest in the discourse setting, or (b) the product of this act” (Dudis, 2011: 4). Using depiction, signers provide a partial demonstration of the event being described (Liddell, 2003). This study follows Dudis (2007, 2011) where depiction is identified as occurring when signers utilize their articulators, their body, and the signing space around them to represent an entity, event, or abstract concept. Elements of depiction may include the signer’s body, facial expressions, articulators, and the signing space around the signer, and indicators of depiction included changes in head position, facial expression, eye gaze and body position (Thumann 2010).


The research team analyzed language samples from individuals assessed at each level of proficiency on the ASLPI. Using ELAN to compare depiction usage between signers, the research team sought to identify patterns and gain insight into the type and occurrence of depiction usage at various levels of fluency from low proficiency to high proficiency. Using ELAN, a professional transcription tool, the research group analyzed each language sample in order to identify instances of depiction and depiction types, creating time-aligned annotations for each instance (based on Dudis’ Depiction Identification Flowchart version 4.9.2). Coders also noted the indicators of each instance of depiction including changes in facial expression, the direction of eye gaze, the direction of the tilt of the head, and changes in the position of the body (Thumann, 2010).

The aim of this research was to determine how depiction usage compares among signers of different ASLPI levels in order to gain a better understanding of types of depiction evidenced and to identify problem areas related to depiction usage of less skilled signers. This study involved identifying the number of instances of depiction and the number of types of depiction in each sample, a comparison of the number of instances of each type of depiction (within the same proficiency level), and a comparison of the number of instances of each type of depiction (between proficiency levels). This study also involved providing descriptions of differences in types of depiction, evidence of depiction (i.e. differences in the indicators of depiction such as eye gaze, head position, facial expressions, body position), and patterns in the production of depiction by signers of each level of proficiency (i.e. descriptions of variation in handshapes, use of space, etc.). Proficient language users are able to show details and make information visible thereby aiding addressees in constructing conceptualizations for understanding. In this session, the presenters share strategies used in identifying and coding instances of depiction by signers assessed at various proficiency levels on the ASLPI.

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Brown Bag on development of Bimodal Bilingualism (the first 6 years) 4/27, 12-1 @SLCC Open Space, Ling Dept

The semester is winding down. Please take a break from the end of the semester craziness and join us Monday April 27th for a Brown Bag Lecture. Bring your lunch!

topic: Development of Bimodal Bilingualism: The first 6 years
presenters: Dr. Deborah Chen Pichler, Wanette Reynolds, Laura Kozak, and Jeffery Palmer
when: Monday, April 27th, 12 to 1 pm
where: SLCC 3rd floor open area in linguistics department

Come hear about one of our department’s ongoing research programs, the Development of Bimodal Bilingualism, a joint grant project between Gallaudet, the University of Connecticut and the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina in Brazil. How do children growing up with ASL and English develop linguistically? How does sign+speech bilingualism compare with more typical speech+speech bilingualism? Debbie Chen Pichler, PI of the Gallaudet team, will open the hour with an overview of the project’s main themes from the last 6 years, and also describe the directions in which the lab will be expanding in the future. Our three PhD students in the lab, Viola Kozak, Jeffrey Palmer and Wanette Reynolds, will each speak briefly about our investigations in the development of phonology, syntax and discourse development, respectively, among bimodal bilingual children. We will also touch on the topic of koda signers as heritage users of sign language, displaying many of the trademark characteristics noted for heritage speakers, or bilinguals acquiring a minority, home language in the context of a more dominant majority language.

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Post about TISLR by Doctoral Candidate Carla Morris

The deadline to submit abstracts for posters or presentations for TISLR12 in Melbourne, Australia, is this weekend.

*** Update regarding submission deadline ***

From the SLLS facebook page

Hello everyone,

This is a third and final reminder about the deadline for abstracts for the TISLR 12 conference. It has been slightly revised to March 1, 23:59 Melbourne time (Australian Eastern Daylight Savings Time, or AEDT). This is 11 hours ahead of GMT. The cut off for submissions to the EasyChair system has been set to this deadline.

We have extended the deadline slightly to take into account the time differences across the globe which mean that the final hours of February 28 (the previously announced deadline) in some parts of the world may be up to 21 hours (if, for example, you are in Hawaii) behind Melbourne time.

Thank you,
Chair, TISLR 12 Local Organising Committee


Australian Eastern Daylight Time is 16 hours ahead of Eastern Time
For example:
2:39 AM Saturday, Australian Eastern Daylight Time (AEDT) is
10:39 AM Friday, Eastern Time (ET)

Some of you may be asking: What is TISLR???

TISLR stands for Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research. It has become the international conference in our field of sign language linguistics that encompasses all theoretical approaches – The unifying characteristic is our research of sign languages.

Currently, TISLR is held once every 3 years. The first one I attended was in 2010, at Purdue in Indiana.  The most recent (TISLR11) was in London in 2013, where myself and five of our classmates and two of our faculty members presented (!). This next one will be in Melbourne in 2016.

The first TISLR was held in Rochester, NY in 1986.

The second was hosted by our very own department and held here at Gallaudet in 1988. (TISLR2 Proceedings).

TISLR’s governing body is the Sign Language Linguistics Society (SLLS).

At TISLR, not only do sign language researchers from around the world have a chance to network and collaborate (and show off a little), SLLS also holds their General Meeting, wherein the hosting sites of upcoming TISLR’s are voted on – much like the competitive hosting process for the Olympic Games.

Following Melbourne next year, Hamburg is slated to host in 2019. Even if you only have the opportunity to attend, I highly recommend it!  It’s an amazing experience.

– Carla Morris

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Brown Bag by Professor Shaw 3/2, 12-1 @SLCC Open Space, Ling Dept

Our second Brown Bag of Spring Semester will be this coming Monday (3/2). Dr. Shaw will be talking with us about language and power in legal interpreting contexts (see abstract below).

topic: Interpreting Decisions and Power: Legal Discourse or Legal Discord?
presenter: Dr. Risa Shaw
when: Monday, March 3rd, 12 to 1 pm
where: SLCC 3rd floor open area in linguistics department

Interpreting Decisions and Power: Legal Discourse or Legal Discord?

In Canada and the U.S. interpreting legal discourse and working in legal interactions is an area fraught with power imbalances between the agents of the judicial system and the Deaf persons who come in contact with them. This two-part qualitative study (survey and focus groups) included Deaf and non-deaf ASL-English interpreters from Canada and the U.S. We analyzed how interpreters who have worked in legal settings for the past 10-30 years make decisions about their work that may contribute to the power dynamics in this specialized area. Results indicate the effect of the intersections among power and privilege, interpreters’ sense of agency, conceptualization of the task of interpreting, and training. These intersections cut across the power dynamics of systemic power, power in the legal system, and one’s own personal and/or professional power and privilege, or lack thereof. Participants highlight the following: the importance of trust and the relationship among team members, especially between Deaf and non-deaf colleagues, awareness of one’s choices, recognition of the impact of one’s decisions, and willingness to changes one’s practices. Additional themes emerged regarding definitions of qualifications, job requirements, working conditions, preparation strategies and practices, and the need for ongoing specialized training. Finally, the study has implications for interpreter educators and interpreters who work in legal settings. While this study draws on data from legal settings, results are applicable to multiple contexts and settings.

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Brown Bag by graduate student Amelia Becker 2/23 12-1 @SLCC Open Space, Ling Dept

Amelia Becker will be this semester’s first Brown Bag presenter. She will be talking with us about about some important conceptual issues raised at the intersection of phonetics, phonology, and cognition in signed languages (see abstract below).

topic: Sign Language Phonetic Annotation as a Tool in Cognitive Linguistics
presenter: Amelia Becker
when: Monday, February 23rd, 12 to 1 pm
where: SLCC 3rd floor open area in linguistics department


This paper seeks to determine ways in which Sign Language Phonetic Annotation (SLPA; Johnson & Liddell, 2010, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c) is an appropriate tool for Cognitive linguistics. I posit a theory of Cognitive phonetics and phonology based upon Langacker’s (2008) Content Requirement and drawing from Bybee’s (2003) and Armstrong, Stokoe, and Wilcox’s (1995) insights. I then evaluate SLPA against this rough framework, firstly concluding that the phonological level of Johnson and Liddell’s (2010, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c) suggestions are in opposition to such a theory due to their assumptions of underlying and surface forms which follow a Generative model of rule-governed operations. Next, however, I examine the phonetic level of analysis offered by SLPA (which is, in fact, the bulk of the focus of the articles proposing it) and demonstrate that a phonetic description of signed languages is indeed useful. Whereas previous suggestions for signed language phonology, such as Brentari’s (1998) Prosodic Model, have provided phonological but not phonetic analysis, SLPA serves as a tool for a phonetic representation of the configuration of signs, and Johnson and Liddell (2010) convincingly demonstrate the inadequacy of purely “emic” models for describing differences both between distinct signs and between the same sign’s form in different phonological contexts. Some have argued (Armstrong et al., 1995; Stokoe, 2001) that, in contrast to spoken language phonetics and phonology, an articulatory and sequential representation of signs is unnecessary due to differences in visual and auditory perception. To support Johnson and Liddell’s (2010) argument for phonetic description, then, I demonstrate how SLPA can reveal articulatory differences between a sign’s form in American Sign Language and its apparently borrowed form in Haitian Sign Language, differences which are indeed perceivable by native and fluent signers, thus necessitating the employment of phonetic detail in the description of perceptual phenomena, regardless of the predictability of certain features.
I then examine SLPA in light of Armstrong et al.’s (1995) proposal to view all language production – whether signed or spoken – as gesture. Brentari (1998) suggests “that the closer our analyses are to the phonetics, the more apparent the differences are between sign language and spoken language, and that the closer our analyses are to grammatical function, the more apparent the similarities become” (p. 3). I propose, however, that SLPA’s focus upon the muscular activities employed for signed language production provides a model for examining linguistic form in a way that can also inform spoken language linguistics: as physical activity commanded by the brain. Focusing on the brain’s trifold task of housing the language network and both commanding and perceiving language production regardless of modality makes room for precisely the unified view of all language production as gesture for which Armstrong et al. (1995) call.

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