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Campus News
Your faculty and staff news since 1965
April 18, 2005
Volume 40, Number 9

Student Research
Outside the Box > > Erin Wilkinson

Sign languages from around world studied
By Sari Krosinsky

Wilkinson studies and teaches in the Linguistics Department. Photo by Sari Krosinsky.

Language. It’s at the center of human life, shaping and being shaped by our everyday experiences. Erin Wilkinson, a doctoral student and teaching assistant in linguistics, is working on several projects in the study of language, especially sign languages, around the world.

Her work has been recognized through several scholarships, including a Fulbright for a comparative study on American and Italian Sign Languages. Two of her papers have been published.

Wilkinson started teaching linguistics at UNM last fall. She previously taught deaf students at Gallaudet University and Mesa College, but this is her first time teaching linguistics to hearing students with an interpreter.

In an interview with Wilkinson, interpreted from American Sign Language by Helen Arenholz, she said that it has been interesting, and that her students are “learning what it’s like to have a deaf teacher. It’s a really good experience for them to see that as well. They’re getting a lot of information from me about sign language linguistics that they’re not really exposed to in other linguistics classes.”

One of Wilkinson’s studies asks how signers in different languages approach perspective? With Linguistics Department Chair Sherman Wilcox, Wilkinson is studying perspective in American, Italian, Catalan and Brazilian Sign Languages through “the pear story.” The pear story, commonly used in linguistics research, “is a short video clip, and it’s a story told visually with no spoken words,” Wilkinson explained. Participants view the clip and then retell the story in their own words.

A focus of the study, Wilkinson said, is to ask whether subjects are “telling the story as if they’re the narrator, sort of separated from the action or did they actually take on roles of different characters and show this visually, because Sign Languages are already of course visual.”

Wilkinson is also working on a collaborative study with Jill Morford, UNM professor of linguistics, and two psychologists at the University of Cologne. The study compares American and German Sign Languages “to see how much an adept signer understands a different sign language” and “to figure out the degree of iconicity of the visual information they are able to extract from our human experience, not knowing that other sign language,” Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson’s involvement in the UNM community goes beyond the classroom and research. She is also a graduate student representative on the Accessibility Services Advisory Committee, which recently formed “to make sure that the university is on top of everything in an even better way in terms of disability issues,” Wilkinson said. The committee focuses on improving accessibility for those with disabilities, addressing such issues as physical barriers posed by construction and efficiency in scheduling interpreters.