25 Interviews for the FNP’s 25th Anniversary: Paweł Rutkowski, PhD talks to Anna Mateja

Dodano: :: Kategorie: Success Stories, 25 years Foundation for Polish Science
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25 Interviews for the FNP’s 25th Anniversary. The Foundation for Polish Science (FNP) celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, we have invited 25 beneficiaries of our programmes to tell us about how they “practise” science. What fascinates them? What is so exciting, compelling and important in their particular field that they have decided to devote a major part of their lives to it? How does one achieve success?

The interviewees are researchers representing many very different fields, at different stages of their scientific careers, with diverse experience. But they have one thing in common: they practise science of the highest world standard, they have impressive achievements to their credit and different kinds of FNP support in their extensive CVs. We are launching the publication of our cycle; successive interviews will appear regularly on the FNP website.

Pleasant reading!

A Chinese Person in Warsaw

Paweł Rutkowski, PhD, a linguist and co-author of the corpus of Polish Sign Language (PJM), talks to Anna Mateja.

ANNA MATEJA: Instead of studying the mysteries of spoken Polish, why did you decide to focus on the language of Polish Deaf people?

PAWEŁ RUTKOWSKI: Because in sign language, like when you’re studying the language of an unknown tribe from Papua-New Guinea, whatever you touch is new. And for any linguist, an opportunity to describe a language that little is known about is like winning the lottery. Another major consideration was that the topic was interesting also because it is important in a social aspect. Until the 1990s, no systematic research on Polish Sign Language (PJM) was conducted in Poland. No one worked on its grammatical description.

You were helped with your “lottery ticket” by Prof. Marek Świdziński, who in the mid-1990s saw sign language as a language worthy of scientific description.

When I started my research on PJM, I had just obtained my PhD. My dissertation concerned a generative approach to Polish syntax – a hermetic segment within contemporary linguistics that a few dozen specialists are able to comprehend. Under Mark’s influence I started spending less time on theoretical analyses because I became increasingly absorbed with empirical research and documentation work. I am grateful to him for that. I find out something new nearly every day, so I have no shortage of satisfaction from learning. But I get a sense of fulfilment from something else: I observe a growing interest in Deaf people among hearing Poles. I hope this change of attitude was also influenced by the work of the team I head. I’d like our research to translate into the widest possible recognition that PJM ensures fully competent communication, and then into real-term respect for the human rights of Deaf people.

You say human rights? I assume you mean the once frequent punishment of tying deaf children’s hands for signing instead of learning spoken language?

Yes, human rights are at stake. I remember a scientific conference once where someone who wanted to sign something was told “don’t behave like an ape”. Today, I hope, something like that could not happen, also thanks to the work and empathy of Prof. Świdziński, who launching his research on sign language saw not only the linguistic aspect but also a major social dimension of such studies. In simple terms: he understood the discrimination suffered by Deaf people. The right to freely use your own language is one of the human rights. It’s hard to pursue if the society in which Deaf people live isn’t aware of the distinctness of their language and the consequent specificity of the cultural community they form. Because, can “flapping your hands”, as signing used to be contemptuously called, be so important? That’s why efforts began to win recognition for it as a language, and today no linguist will dare divide languages into “normal” and sign languages. It is obvious to specialists that languages are divided into spoken languages, of which there are about 7,000 in the world, and sign languages, of which close to 200 are known. In principle, none of them is believed to provide incomplete communicative competence.


dr Paweł Rutkowski by One HD

What is the uniqueness of sign language based on?

Every natural language is a foundation of human identity, an instrument enabling people to describe the world and express emotions, to say who we are and what we feel. That is also its role in the world of Deaf people, something that many hearing people don’t understand or don’t think about. That’s why, even if our system of language teaching were able to teach every deaf pupil the Polish language, many would still say, “this isn’t my language”. Deaf people can learn to read and write, many can articulate Polish sounds (often with a “deaf accent”, but communication is problem-free) and lip-read. Despite this, from their point of view communication in spoken language is not conducted along partnership lines. Sign language gives them the advantage that when they use it, they feel “at home”, i.e. they are using the language that is sensorially accessible to them. By the way, this is also underlined by those Deaf people who went through an oralist education and only started signing as adults. They even say that having been deprived of this possibility of communicating with others around them, they felt “robbed”. They can describe and name anything in sign language, achieving communication with an interlocutor without having to adapt to the conditions of the hearing world.

Every other language besides sign language is foreign to them – just like every language is to hearing people besides the language they grew up in and learned to speak.

For children who sign from childhood, this is exactly the case. Usually spoken language doesn’t develop in Deaf people in a natural way, so when they start learning it, it’s similar to acquiring a foreign language. They learn not only sound articulation but also Polish grammar in a way that’s like learning the rules of chess, which is torturous work for them. Texts written by Deaf people – even those with an excellent education – often look as if they were written by a foreigner.

But we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater – I am in no way a supporter of throwing spoken language out of the world of Deaf people. It would upset the balance in the same way as happened a hundred years ago when attempts were made to remove sign language from it. Actually, many Deaf people don’t consider sign language to be part of their identity, because spoken language fully satisfies their need for communication with the world. Functioning among hearing people is certainly facilitated today by cochlear implants. But even if most people with impaired hearing were able to master spoken Polish, there would always be a group that wouldn’t be able to cope with mastering this skill. Or who would simply want to sign. That’s why we have to make sure every deaf child gets the opportunity to learn PJM.

What will Deaf people gain from equal status being given to the languages they may learn?

As the first benefit I’d mention something not very obvious: dispelling the doubts of many parents who think that sign language could become a wall separating their children from the hearing world, expose them to stigmatization, weaken their bond with their family, prevent them from finding friends or a job. I can assure them that life brings a completely different experience. Sign language stimulates communication, thanks to which children also learn spoken language with greater commitment. It triggers exactly the same mechanism that occurs in foreign language learning: learning one language helps learn further ones.

Children understand themselves and the world better, so they want to interact with others.

And if their parents or teachers make the effort to learn sign language, this hard work is sure to result in a deeper relationship with their own child or in measurable progress at school. Many parents, convinced that the standard of teaching at a school for hearing-impaired people is low and a certificate from such a school will not facilitate their children’s further education, want to enrol them in regular schools. Of course this also has a practical aspect, as the children stay with their family, they don’t have to find a place for themselves in the alien environment of a boarding school. I agree that integration is a great idea, but it is only possible to fulfil to the extent that communication is possible between the person being integrated and the community. Otherwise the child faces communicative exclusion – the worst thing that could happen to them.

I am far from questioning the sense of integration. I only want to point out that before they decide, parents should have complete information about the role of sign language in the education of hearing-impaired children. And I discovered yet again what signing actually means to them after reading the letters I received when our team in association with the Ministry of National Education developed and published some textbooks for Deaf people. One letter came from the mother of a hearing-impaired girl in the early years of primary school, who lived in a small town and was unable to send her daughter to a Deaf school. Therefore the girl didn’t know sign language, and she got our multimedia textbook at school. The mother described what happened when they started using the textbook: without any organized course, the daughter absolutely soaked up the signs!

What areas of the brain does signing stimulate if it turned out to be so natural for her?

Receiving signed communication causes perceptible activation of the area around the Sylvian fissure in Deaf people, which is a sign of language system activation. This is shown, for example, by the results of research using brain imaging that the University of Warsaw’s Section for Sign Linguistics, which I head, conducted in collaboration with neurobiologists from the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology in Warsaw. Research in such a broad, interdisciplinary form would not have been possible without funding provided by the FNP under the INTER programme. The study also showed greater activation of the posterior part of the superior temporal gyrus of the brain’s left hemisphere when watching sentences signed in PJM compared to watching communication in “signed Polish” (SJM), which is Polish communicated in visual form. Therefore PJM is unquestionably a separate language, and its natural character (as opposed to SJM) is even proved by the oxygenation of blood in the brain. You need to remember, however, that in terms of grammatical structure PJM is closer to Chinese than Polish. That’s why I always tell my students that speaking of the “disability” of a Deaf person makes as much sense as speaking of the “disability” of a Chinese person in Warsaw – it is solely a communication barrier.

In 1817 at the Kazimierzowski Palace in Warsaw, inspired by the idea of educating hearing-impaired people that he witnessed in France, Father Jakub Falkowski opened the first Polish school for deaf people: the Deaf-Mute Institute.

Deaf people, who account for about 1/1000 of the population, in 95 percent of cases are born into hearing families, so school is the only place where sign language can develop. This was also the case with the Institute in Warsaw: there are reports that sign language was used there from the very beginning. Half a century after the Institute was founded, two priests, Józef Hollak and Teofil Jagodziński, described the signs of the time on over 500 pages. Since many of them are the same as those used today, we can say that PJM has been developing for 200 years.

But it wasn’t until 2010 that systematic work began on creating a PJM corpus – a database of signed expressions that enables the vocabulary and grammar of sign language to be described. Today it is one of the four biggest sign language corpora in the world.

We were only able to carry out a project aimed at describing the vocabulary and grammar of PJM on the basis of representative empirical data, and not the intuition or habits of individual users of the language, because we received funding from the FNP, this time in the FOCUS programme.

To build the corpus, we have to conduct hundreds of multiple-hour recordings involving Deaf people. We want to gather data that are as spontaneous as possible, because only such data can serve as a source of sufficient vocabulary and grammatical structures. We designed a special script for the recording sessions, comprising more than twenty tasks; e.g. we ask one of the people being recorded to explain to their partner how to get to a specific place in town based on a map they can see on the monitor. We suggest the topics in order to study spatial structures, force people to use specific signs and expressions. Because we give the same questions to a group of as many as a hundred subjects, we achieve a degree of repeatability. In an effort to make the group a representative one, we invite people from large cities and small localities, aged from 18 to 92, with different levels of education, from different environments.

Thanks to this we are learning how sign language changes over time, how its standards or development trends form. This is important when you remember that PJM isn’t a codified language – there is no single standard or model of literary sign language that the intellectual elite of the Deaf community use. That’s why we see a great diversity of signing in the corpus – not just regional, but also individual.

The material we collect is annotated, meaning that individual film frames and sequences are provided with textual information – a label thanks to which signs can be retrieved from the set. The reliability of this part of the work is ensured by the participation of Deaf people themselves in our project.

What do Deaf people need a literary variant of PJM for?

Elites have the same important role to play in any community: they set the standards of behaviour, including language behaviours. In the textbooks published by the Ministry of National Education that I mentioned earlier, we translated the Polish national anthem into PJM for the first time. Until now, it wasn’t the meaning of the anthem that was translated, only the sequence of Polish words was signed. Our translation, produced thanks to the work and talent of the Deaf people on the team I head, expresses the spirit of the song without strictly following the spoken Polish syntax of the original. Judging by the number of YouTube views, this translation hit the nail on the head. This is the kind of project that creates chances for the crystallization of a standard of literary PJM. And this cannot be speeded up, especially since the natural course of this process depends on many factors, including the existence of a deaf intelligentsia who use sign language. If children aren’t taught the language because of emphasis being placed exclusively on implants and using spoken language, signing could become marginalized.

What is the most important thing in your research? Studying a language that was underestimated for years and working to save it? Seeking regularities that all languages have in common?

The most important thing, as always in science, is finding out the truth. Also in research on sign language, our aim is to open new areas, especially as there is no shortage of inspiring theories, for instance on how sign language emerged. Many researchers think that in the distant past human communication was iconic: the shape of a sign imitated what that sign stood for. With time, communication became vocal, freeing the hands. Maybe that’s why sign language develops so naturally in Deaf people as soon as they start learning the signs?

Sign languages are iconic because, among other things, they are still young – the oldest ones are only about 200 years old. The relationship between a sign and its denotation is still visible, for example in words like “house” which is produced by putting the hands together in the shape of a roof, or “telephone” when a hand imitates a receiver. As a language develops, when abstract notions appear as well as the necessity to give names to elements of reality that cannot be illustrated by referring to their shape, there has to appear association, simile, metonymy. You have to agree on a convention – in fact, this is a key term in research on sign language, which is based on convention. But is that anything new?

Precisely, it is not: spoken languages are also conventionalized, which you could see as another argument for the equal status of sign languages. Are you intrigued by a search for universal linguistic mechanisms – the things that all languages share?

Noam Chomsky, one of the greatest contemporary linguists, posits the existence of a universal grammar, a basic competence in building sentences – shared by all humans and distinguishing us from animals – that is coded in our genome. Though this theory causes a lot of controversy in present-day science, it seems to be impossible to understand and describe the mechanisms of human communication in depth without taking sign languages into account. These languages did not originate from spoken languages, yet Deaf people communicate through sentences that are no different in terms of structural complexity than sentences uttered by hearing people. Therefore the ability to describe the world around us with the help of sentence structures does not depend on the communication medium. What we have to say is important, not the way we express our thoughts. It’s worth remembering this in our contacts with Deaf people.

PAWEŁ RUTKOWSKI, PhD, (born 1978 in Białystok) heads the Section for Sign Linguistics at the Faculty of Polish Studies of the University of Warsaw. A beneficiary of FNP programmes: START (2003, 2004), FOCUS (2009), INTER (2012), MENTORING (2012).