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Speaking without sound

When Nathalie Evelinadotter came to UND's Summer Institute of Linguistics from her native Sweden this summer, she represented something new for the 55-year old partnership between UND and SIL.

When Nathalie Evelinadotter came to UND's Summer Institute of Linguistics from her native Sweden this summer, she represented something new for the 55-year old partnership between UND and SIL.

Though the institute enrolled its first deaf student in 2002, when it expanded its offerings to include classes on the linguistics of world sign languages, Evelinadotter is the first non-American deaf student to enroll in the institute.

And field research into the linguistics of world sign languages is in such a nascent stage, SIL Director Albert Bickford said, that Evelinadotter's planned research has a good shot at greatly expanding the field.

"We're at the stage in our work on sign languages now that we were probably at 100 years ago in spoken languages," Bickford said. "Not very many sign languages have been sampled for one thing, and there are still methodological concerns. We're still not sure how to go about measuring things in a standardized way."

When she's completed her coursework at UND and at Karlstad University in Sweden, Evelinadotter said she hopes to research and document different sign languages in Papua New Guinea and explore those languages' similarities with other world sign languages.

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"Papua New Guinea is a small country, and there's little information about communities there that use sign language," Evelinadotter said through SIL Interpreter Victor Brown. "There's little information about the number of sign languages (in Papua New Guinea) and the different types."

Evelinadotter is one of six deaf students attending the institute this summer and one of three international deaf people at the institute. Kang Suk Byun and Nyeong Cheol Choi, both deaf students from South Korea, are attending the institute as volunteers.

About 30 SIL students are studying sign language linguistics this summer, Bickford said.

The institute offered sign language linguistics courses before in 2002, 2005 and 2006, Bickford said, drawing up to eight deaf students each time. Administrators are debating whether to offer the full load of sign language linguistics courses next year, Bickford said. He said he hopes to make the subject a major focus of the institute in coming years.

SIL is an independent research organization that also runs summer institutes on about 35 campuses worldwide, Bickford said. UND began hosting the summer institute in 1952 and now draws about 144 students and 100 more teachers, administrators and their family members to Grand Forks each year.

Across borders

Evelinadotter is working on a class project with two other SIL students this summer, that she hopes will inform her future linguistic survey work in Papua New Guinea.

For the project, Evelinadotter filmed herself telling a story in Swedish sign language, then e-mailed the video to a deaf Swedish friend and verified that he understood the story with a series of comprehension questions.

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This week, the group will show the same video to a group of American Sign Language speakers to test how much can be understood between the two languages.

The video testing method has been used to research similarities between many different spoken languages, SIL professor Mark Karan said, but the method has never been used successfully with sign languages.

If the class project is successful, Karan said, he hopes the group can re-create it on a larger scale and establish it as a valid research tool.

Sign languages have been a focus of linguistic research since the 1960s, Bickford said, but the field is still in a very early stage. No one knows precisely how many distinct sign languages exist or what similarities the more than 100 world sign languages share.

Different sign languages are about as distinct from each other as spoken languages within a language family, such as the Latin-derived Romance languages, Bickford said. But linguists do not know what causes those similarities and which sign languages share the most similarities.

He said the research Evelinadotter has proposed, which involves investigating similarities between sign languages in Papua New Guinea and Australian sign languages, could begin to fill in that picture.

Social change

Kang Suk Byun, the Korean SIL volunteer, came to UND with a very different background than Evelinadotter and with different goals.

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Evelinadotter was taught in Swedish sign language from a young age, she said, and wasn't pressured to learn to speak or to communicate by reading lips. When she went to college, the government arranged for a free sign language interpreter to join her in classes.

Byun said he learned Korean Sign Language from his parents, who also are deaf, but when he attended a school for the deaf, only a few of the teachers could sign and students were taught only to read lips.

When he went to college, Byun said, he was told to train his hearing friends to be sign language interpreters or to get what he could out of lectures by reading lips. If he had a question, he was told to e-mail the instructors, who sometimes didn't write back until days later.

"The deaf community is quite oppressed in Korea, and there aren't a lot of opportunities," Byun said with Brown interpreting. "I want to improve opportunities for deaf people in Korea."

Byun studies spoken language linguistics at Nazareth University in Seoul, South Korea. He said he's chiefly interested in the linguistics of sign language, which isn't offered at Nazareth, but his knowledge of American Sign Language and written English isn't proficient enough to attend the summer institute as a student. Byun said he plans to come back to the institute as a student once he's mastered the language.

Byun's father, Seung Il Byun, is president of the Korean Deaf Association. In 2005, he said, the association organized a 3,000-person march of deaf people in Seoul, protesting the lack of opportunities for deaf people in Korea.

Byun said he thinks Korean deaf students are severely hindered because they're not allowed to use sign language in school. He said he hopes to use linguistic research to persuade the Korean government to integrate sign language into the curriculum for deaf schools.

"I'd like to do research to show that sign language can help increase deaf people's function in society," Byun said. "And I want to encourage other deaf people to stand up. I want to show that deaf people are smarter than people think they are."

Marks reports on higher education. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or jmarks@gfherald.com .

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