Ronnie Wilbur – 2015 Purdue University Research and Scholarship Distinction Award
Professor Ronnie Wilbur (PhD, University of Illinois, 1973) is a theoretical and experimental linguist who came to Purdue University in 1980 as a visiting associate professor. She rose to the rank of full professor in 1984, has conducted groundbreaking research on sign languages for more than three decades, and has been largely responsible for the genesis of rigorous empirical research in the recently booming field of sign language research.
Founder and director of the only sign language research center in the Midwest, Wilbur has pioneered new technological methods for analyzing sign languages that parallel methodologies available for analyzing and understanding spoken languages. Her pioneering 1979 first textbook, “American Sign Language and Sign Systems: Research and Applications,” played a major role in establishing the current field of empirical sign language research. She is the founding editor of the field’s flagship journal Sign Language and Linguistics.
In addition to her heavily funded research — which includes field work in Europe, especially eastern Europe — and numerous guest lectureships and visiting professorships in both the U.S. and Europe, Wilbur served a dozen years (2000-2012) as director of the Purdue Linguistics Program, and has been the director of National Institutes of Health and Department of Education training grants.
She is a co-developer of MathSigner, a computer-based tool for teaching K-2 math concepts to young deaf children. A member of the Purdue University Book of Great Teachers, she received the 2014 Helen B. Schleman Gold Medallion Award for accomplishments related to women’s issues on campus, as well as a Focus Award for diversity and disability service, and a Seed for Success Award for research funding in excess of $1 million.
Abstract of Lecture
American baseball icon and homespun native philosopher Yogi Berra astutely pronounced, “I never said half the things I said.” This is a familiar paradigm for serious sign language linguists, who have long faced widespread misconceptions about both the nature of the languages they study and the precise scientific endeavors they practice.
Professor Wilbur draws on her four decades of pioneering research on the linguistic structures and innate universal properties of the world’s numerous signed languages. With this lecture, she demonstrates how the field has grown from primitive misconceptions categorizing sign languages as mere gestural systems, or as primitive transliterations of a dominant surrounding spoken language, to a much fuller — if not yet complete — understanding of manual languages of the deaf as fully formed human language systems equivalent to any spoken human language. Differences that do exist derive from differences in the physical modality that separate audition from vision.
Rigorous empirical research pioneered by Ronnie Wilbur has dismissed decades of misconceptions about American Sign Language as a mere gesture-based approximation of spoken English, and also about signed languages in general as being something short of the full-fledged human language systems that they actually are. Our current understanding of sign languages as complex and fully formed languages not only sheds important light on our understanding of spoken languages themselves — their origins, acquisition, disorders, and universal properties. It also now allows us to begin developing more valued methodologies for teaching not only language but other academic skills to deaf children whose path to academic achievement comparable to their hearing peers is demonstrably tied to their sign language proficiency.
Professor Wilbur is a theoretical and experimental linguist whose work concentrates on sign languages — especially American Sign Language, Croatian Sign Language and Austrian Sign Language — and their vital implications for our adequate understanding of human language structures, language acquisition, language processing by native users, general cognition, and the linguistic representations necessary for all languages. A central focus of this work also is the application of our expanded knowledge of sign languages to the proper and effective education of deaf children.
Wilbur’s ongoing research has contributed heavily to developing the science of language study in the following areas:
- It provides the first empirical documentation that — contrary to decades of prevailing opinion — knowledge of a sign language does not interfere with acquisition of English reading and writing skills. Rather, the more proficient the sign language skill, the greater the likelihood that deaf children will assess at or above grade-level compared to their hearing peers.
- Based particularly on the study of American Sign Language, it pioneers in demonstrating that sign language syllables not only exist but serve functions similar to those in speech, yet have different internal structures due to the modality in which they are produced (manually) and perceived (visually). Signed syllables form the basis for linguistic stress, rhythm and intonation; contribute to compound formation for new words; and explain how compounds eventually become single signs over time, in much the same way that English “breakfast” is not pronounced as a sequence of two words “break” and “fast.”
- Since 1990 the core of Wilbur’s research has focused on the use of head, body and face positions (non-manual features of the language) as key components of the grammar of American Sign Language. But these non-manuals function in ways distinct from their appearance in spoken languages. Their timing with respect to the hands must be precise in both onset and offset. Some of these non-manual features have functions that require advanced formal semantic techniques to describe.
- Kinematic studies of the signer’s production of ASL, using motion capture equipment, have demonstrated (1) that the length or duration of signs is a key element of the grammar marking phrase endings, (2) that peak velocity of signs demonstrates linguistic stress, and (3) that rapid deceleration in forming signs also holds a key semantic function as end-markers of certain verbs and adjectives.
- Wilbur’s most recent work has focused on the complex syntax and semantics of sign languages and their neurolinguistic processing. Using both fMRI and electroencephalography (EEG), Wilbur is exploring the processing of American Sign Language and Austrian Sign Language with a team in Salzburg, Austria.
Wilbur’s impressive body of research demonstrates that the current understanding of such visual languages now allows linguists to posit solutions that are not only revolutionizing our understanding of spoken languages (as much as increasing our knowledge about signed languages) but also providing important and much-needed innovations in the often poorly conceived approaches to appropriate educational instruction for deaf children.