Black deaf graduate student aims to introduce NM sign language varieties: UNM Newsroom
When traveling through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, a request for chili on a cheeseburger will yield three different types of flavor. Similarly, a graduate student at the University of New Mexico is conducting pioneering research showing dialectical varieties of sign language in New Mexico and influences on signed communication.
Just as a person from northern New Mexico may speak a different version of colloquial English than a person from Las Cruces, Deaf communities have different signs that are influenced by region, culture, environment , race and ethnicity. It’s a well-known concept in deaf communities, but there’s very little academic research to explain it.
“People often feel proud of their language and their identity – and the same goes for the deaf community. But there are some varieties of ASL that have received almost no attention and we are trying to get them recognized. -David Player, UNM Linguistics
David Player is a Black Deaf graduate student in UNM’s linguistics department. Originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, he came to New Mexico after earning his bachelor’s degree in sociology at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Inspired by groundbreaking research showing evidence of sociolinguistic variation in Black ASL, David focuses his studies at UNM on the sociolinguistics of sign languages. While teaching ASL IV during his first semester of graduate school, he saw students growing up in New Mexico using a different sign for the word “lucky” than he was used to. New Mexicans told him that the sign he used for “lucky” means “chile” here – like red or green. Eventually he met other deaf New Mexicans and they confirmed the NM signs for “lucky” and “chili” that he had learned from hearing student interpreters.
“What it told me was that there had been an adaptation of the lucky sign so that there was no confusion between the lucky sign and the chili sign,” said he declared.
With a background in sociology, Player understands how sociocultural factors have a huge impact on language variation, as shown by the Black ASL Project. He now seeks to build on his knowledge to examine linguistic variation in New Mexico’s ASL, conducting uncharted research in perceptual dialectology – the study of how non-linguists perceive language variation. .
“Most people think the deaf community is homogeneous and it’s not,” Player said. “Where you grew up, the type of education you received, the language exposure you had – all of these things are factors and make language variation complex.”
In the United States as a whole, only one or two projects have attempted to document variations of ASL, and none have focused on areas of the country with such a rich history as New Mexico – which brings together Navajo, Apache, Pueblo, Spanish and Anglo cultures.
“Using traditional research methods on studies like these can take 20-30 years to show results, so we chose to do a perceptual dialectology project because we are not 30 – David is a master’s student and wants to graduate next year,” said UNM linguistics professor Jill Morford. “We had to find a way to learn New Mexico’s ASL variations without take 20 to 30 years. So we reached out to deaf people to see what their intuitions were about their own language, and that generated this very rich response.”
The player interviewed nine people and discovered that there are at least four different varieties of New Mexican American Sign Language, including three regional varieties – the northwest of NM associated with indigenous communities, the central Rio Grande region associated with Santa Fe School for the Deaf and Southern NM. . Participants also identified community centers of variation, including Farmington, Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Las Cruces. While Santa Fe and Albuquerque are in the same area, historical factors related to schools for the deaf and the relocation of deaf people to New Mexico have created different patterns of ASL usage in those cities.
“But there could be even more, depending on how unique you want the strain to be,” he explained. “It’s very rich, there’s a very rich variation here.”
Player also asked participants about attitudes toward variety in the state, identifying areas in which they considered the language to be “less than” or “top notch.” Finally, Player asked them about the need to adapt their signature to accommodate people who are unfamiliar with regional variations. This type of code-switching tends to remove language variations that have significant cultural, racial, or social significance.
“For example, a deaf person from the Navajo Nation will have their own culture, their own lived experience, and their own language,” he said.
When these people leave their community, they tend to adapt their language so that others can understand. These changes can lead to greater social acceptance, but adapting to the majority culture can also inherently alienate minorities. Combating this will require understanding sign language varieties, the social determinants of variation, who is most affected, and how communities perceive and communicate their dialects. That’s why Player says he’s far from done with this research.
“Hearing people, people who are not deaf, are light years ahead of us when it comes to research on spoken language variation,” he said. “It would be cool to broaden the participation, code the results and submit an article or paper to a peer-reviewed journal.”