Linguistics training at the University of North Dakota: Engaging with signed and spoken languages

SIL-UND faculty members Stuart Thiessen (far left) and Arislehidy Prieto (second from left) with students. Having native signers of two signed languages on staff enriched the linguistic and cultural experience of the learning community.

Reflecting on the nine-week session, one student commented, “Having a Deaf lecturer was the highlight of my summer at SIL-UND.”

(August 2012) Students and faculty recently completed the sixty-first summer of SIL linguistics courses at the University of North Dakota. While the annual summer session is only nine weeks long, that time is packed with learning opportunities. Students engage with a variety of topics in linguistics and gain practical skill in the art of learning a new language. As with other SIL training programs in locations around the world, SIL-UND courses are intensely practical and geared to students who are preparing for involvement in language development. For many faculty members, the knowledge shared in the classroom has been gained through extensive field experience.

This year’s SIL-UND session included the usual core offerings of linguistics, sociolinguistics, mother-tongue literacy, translation and anthropology, standard courses for SIL training programs. A unique aspect of SIL-UND is a strong signed languages component.

A focus on signed languages has long been a distinctive of the SIL-UND program. In addition to several spoken languages, this summer’s language acquisition course offerings included the opportunity to learn Colombian Sign Language (Lengua de Señas Colombiana) from Arislehidy Prieto, a native signer of the language who is also fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). Prieto was one of several Deaf instructors on staff this summer, along with fellow Deaf colleagues Gabe Campbell and Stuart Thiessen, both ASL signers. Campbell served as teaching assistant for Prieto’s lab sections, which he facilitated in ASL. Thiessen, who completed an MA in linguistics from SIL-UND in 2011, taught a core academic course entitled Morphosyntax of Signed Languages. For both courses, voice interpretation in English was available for students less fluent in ASL.

Thiessen, Prieto and Campbell led a Deaf culture orientation at the beginning of the summer for SIL-UND staff and students. Deaf Culture Unplugged included a presentation from these three staff members, along with videos and skits in which hearing members of the SIL-UND community were invited to participate. One hearing member of the audience noted, “This orientation was a fun way to learn some striking differences between Deaf and Hearing cultures and the ways we interact.” In another event organized by a student, the SIL-UND community engaged in an evening of discussion about the complexities of Deaf education around the world.

Dr. Albert Bickford, director of the SIL-UND program, comments: “Signed languages are complex and interesting. We want all of our students to be familiar with both signed and spoken languages, even though they eventually specialize in one or the other. The active participation of Deaf staff and students enriches and strengthens the program for everyone.” In July, Bickford presented research to the wider UND community at an academic colloquium. His presentation, “Adapting EGIDS for signed languages,” applied a newly revised language assessment tool to research on the vitality of the world’s signed languages.

Students had many opportunities to delve into the methodologies for analyzing and using signed languages. In addition to the classes mentioned above, an advanced course entitled Translation between Signed and Spoken Languages focused on issues that commonly arise when translating between signed and spoken languages and when translating from one signed language to another. Topics covered in the course included the translation of poetry, Shakespearean drama, and other subject matter of interest to the particular group of students, including the application of Relevance Theory and Clear Accurate Natural Acceptable (CANA) methodology to sign language translation.

Other courses which provided training in gathering and analyzing data from signed languages included Phonetics of Signed Languages, in which students were introduced to the skills needed to describe, transcribe and reproduce the components of signed languages from around the world. In Phonology of Signed Languages, students learned to apply methodologies for analyzing how signs in a particular signed language utilize the hands, face, and body during production. In the signed languages section of the Field Methods course, students were prepared to do field research with a special emphasis on technologies and adaptations for studying the features of signed languages and with respect to the sociolinguistic context of Deaf communities. Two sections of Media Technology for Linguistic Research were offered, one focusing on spoken languages and the other on signed languages.

Click here for an overview of the SIL-UND program and registration information for the summer of 2013.

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