I don’t consider myself a jetsetter, but from time to time I get to leave the country on business – I’ve just returned from a 10 day trip to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and am still somewhat jetlagged. Add being jolted out of bed early this morning by a miscreant fire alarm, and all bets are off for this morning’s final proofreading.

Whenever I’m outside of the country, people ask me where I am from. When I respond, “Albuquerque”, it gets one of three reactions. If the person in question happens to be a balloonist or ballooning aficionado, there is instant recognition of our beloved Duke City. More often, the response is a blank look, followed by confusion if I say New Mexico – “but I thought you were American?”

But if I am asked this question in American Sign Language or International Sign (which is not really a sign language but a sign system – think stilted Esperanto on the hands), then the person usually smiles and signs “UNM?” (See title photograph above)

The University of New Mexico is well known in the community of higher education as the country’s only Hispanic-serving Research Institution; the Anthropology department and Fine Arts programs at UNM are internationally regarded, and other programs have built stellar reputations in specific fields, such as Indian Law, Natural Resources and Environmental Law, and Family Medicine. What many people do not know is that UNM is also known throughout the world for its research on signed languages.

Yep. That’s right.

Signed languages.


Just as there are different spoken languages in the world, there are also different signed languages. This past week I feasted my eyes on Egyptian Sign Language, Jordanian Sign Language, Tunisian Sign Language, Saudi Arabian Sign Language (which is also used by deaf people in Yemen) and more.

Could I understand any of it?

Well, no. Except for a few signs and phrases that I picked up while I was there. And I can now fingerspell the Arabic Alphabet in Saudi Arabian Sign Language, which is more helpful than one might think, depending on the context. Oh, and I can sign camel in three different languages, which is cool, but not so helpful in my profession, unless I stumble upon a thought-experiment using camels.

So what does this have to do with Albuquerque and UNM?


For one, the UNM Linguistics department is home to a number of scholars who work on sign language linguistics. This includes everything from Dr. Phyllis Wilcox’s study of metaphor in signed languages in American Sign Language and French Sign Language, to Dr. Barbara Shaffer's work on ASL semantics and grammaticization, to Dr. Jill Morford’s study of language acquisition among deaf children, to Dr. Sherman Wilcox’s work in documenting signed languages around the world, including Catalan Sign Language, Brazilian Sign Language, Italian Sign Language, and more.

The Linguistics Department is also home to a documentation effort that tracks colleges and universities all over the United States that allows students to take American Sign Language to satisfy the second language requirement. Note my careful wording in the previous sentence – I use “second language requirement” because American Sign Language, just like Navaho and Keres and Tiwa and other American Indian languages, is indigenous to this country.

How did UNM became a breeding ground for sign language linguistics?

It all goes back to the efforts of Dr. Phyllis Wilcox, who started teaching a class in American Sign Language to 8 students in 1971. Twenty-eight years later, the number of students taking American Sign Language at UNM has grown to 1200 students (main campus and three branches).

As the number of sign language courses grew, it led to the inception of one of the first sign language interpreting programs in the nation. The UNM Sign Language Interpreting Program is renowned for its high standards and competitive admissions process, being one of the few programs for aspiring sign language interpreters that offers students a Bachelor of Science degree upon completion. (Most others are at community colleges and terminate at the Associates of Arts or Science degree).

It was the fame of this program, and the scholars who developed it, that led to an invitation to Saudi Arabia. Dr. Phyllis Wilcox, Dr. Sherman Wilcox, and Helen Arenholz, a graduate of the program and UNM sign language interpreter, presented a panel discussion of the growth and development of the UNM Sign Language Interpreting Program as a model for Saudi Arabia to consider.

You see, the country of Saudi Arabia, for all of its wealth, does not yet have a documented dictionary of Saudi Arabian Sign Language, or a national certification process for sign language interpreters, or a pathway for deaf Saudi Arabians to continue their education beyond the secondary level. There is a plan to admit deaf students (men and women) to a Saudi Arabian university this year – for the first time ever.

There are extraordinary people helping to make good things happen for deaf people all over the world – some of them live right here in our own backyard at the University of New Mexico.

Photo credit - UNM Department of Linguistics Signed Language Interpreting Program webpage .

Views: 35

Comment by ABQSkippy on March 30, 2009 at 10:22am
Terrific post, Theresa. It was really interesting.
I took a class from Dr. Wilcox many, many moons ago. I use sign language every day in my classroom but I never became anything near fluent. I am not good at languages at all.
So, I use simple sign for my kids, just as I use simple Spanish. It is effective but not impressive.
I would have thought that some of the more iconic signs would have been found across countries.
Comment by Phil_0 on March 30, 2009 at 1:37pm
Signed languages are very, very cool! Barelas Babe, is it true that American Sign Language is more like French Sign Language than it is like English (from England, that is) Sign Language?
Comment by Tricross on March 30, 2009 at 3:28pm
I get to see sign language all the time. It's my daughter's major.
Comment by Christie Mc on March 30, 2009 at 9:15pm
Thanks for sharing! Years ago, I studied linguistics with the intention of earning my MA, but I changed my area of study. I was fascinated about deaf culture in the US, and the sociolinguistic implications that are attached to the culture. This gave me more insight into the different languages that are signed.
Comment by Barelas Babe on March 31, 2009 at 6:07am
@ABQSkippy - communication is the important thing. I was amazed at how strongly the Arab deaf desired to communicate with us Americans - gesture, fingerspelling, and a mixture of signs from signed languages managed to suffice! Oh, and FWIW, the sign for "Tree" is the same in ASL as it is in Saudi Sign Language. :)

@ Iberostar - Yup, took plenty of pix, which I'll post with a blog I'm writing for another site focused on Deaf issues. I'll link it to my homepage in case you're interested in checking it out.

Phil_0 - I'm no linguist, but I think I can safely answer your question about French Sign Language (LSF) being more closely related to American Sign Language than British Sign Language. The Brits even use a different manual alphabet!

@Tricross - how cool! Is your daughter at UNM?
Comment by bg on March 31, 2009 at 8:23am
I have used various types of signed language in my art over the years. I think it started with Braille and Valentines. I remember a wonderful book that was in my HS library with illustrations of Native American hand language. I loved that book and was very sorry when it disappeared from the shelves. I think it was stolen.

It is great to grow up in a place where so many different types of language/expression are recognized.
Comment by cc on April 1, 2009 at 3:12pm
A friend, from the Semitic Museum at Harvard, who came to UNM to take grad seminar with Beaumont Newhall (yes one of those internationally famous UNM art dept profs) told the story of networking with mid eastern countries helping them learn how to document their 19th cent. photographs. She used to praise the amazing manners and civility of the people she met in all those countries. She ended up holding a conference back in Boston where museum representatives from countries who otherwise were not speaking to each other and told how wonderfully they all got along. Here, Barelas Babe, you speak of being a similar embudsman (sp?) to Saudi Arabia re sign language. How about other countries you mentioned - do they have similar needs for the information you shared in Saudi Arabia? And were your hosts also very gracious?
Comment by Barelas Babe on April 1, 2009 at 3:51pm
@ cc - Oh yes, Arab hospitality was everything that it is famed for - our hosts were incredibly gracious and generous to a fault!

I am not as well versed in the situation in other Arab nations, but I'll bet the faculty at the UNM Linguistics department could answer this question. (I am but a mere philosopher/bioethicist).


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