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Pioneering sign language research to inform
deaf education

Ronnie Wilbur

With over five million dollars from NIH and NSF, Professor Ronnie Wilbur has conducted pioneering interdisciplinary research into the linguistics of sign languages and their contribution to effective deaf education in the US and internationally.

She provided the original research evidence that knowledge of sign language does not interfere with acquisition of English, and that increased communicative input and interaction through sign language leads to greater literacy. She wrote the first textbook in the field, was founding Editor-in-Chief of the journal Sign Language & Linguistics, has published over 150 articles, and has placed Purdue at center stage by attracting linguistics doctoral students from around the world.

Her approaches include theoretical analysis, experimental and survey techniques, kinematic analysis, and neuroimaging. She has explored sign language syllables, stress and prosodic rhythm, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.

She postulated and tested the Event Visibility Hypothesis, which has since been extended to a more general Visibility Hypothesis, to account for what people typically think is iconicity of signs. The accumulated evidence leaves no doubt about the language status of natural sign languages.

Her current project is aimed at analyzing complex sentential structure through use of prosody, motion capture, and perceptual studies. This work involves comparisons of American, Croatian, Austrian, and Turkish Sign Languages, and the development of new analytical techniques to parallel those used for analyzing fluent speech.