Tag Archive | homesign

LA Times Bookfest, CLS, and C2E2

The past couple of weekends have been eventful and a lot of fun (which means this post is going to be long and all over the place). On April 18th, I went to the LA Times Festival of Books at the University of Southern California. My main purpose in going was to meet my editor, whom I had never met in person and who was going to be on a panel wearing her author hat. It was fun to wander among the booths too, though I will admit to spending part of my time at the festival drafting a handout on English speakers’ perception of Zulu clicks.

The panel I attended featured authors David Levithan, Leila Sales (my editor), and Tommy Wallach. It was moderated by Aaron Hartzler, and it was a lot of fun. Afterwards, I got in the signing line and met Leila. She signed my copy of This Song Will Save Your Life, and we chatted a bit more after the signing crowd had dispersed.

Last weekend, I went to Chicago for the Chicago Linguistic Society’s conference (CLS), which was also a lot of fun. I flew in on Wednesday evening and attended a few talks on Thursday; in particular I’d wanted to hear the one on homesign and the one on sign language phonological typology. I don’t really expect to ever work on sign languages, but I’m always drawn to talks in that area. I also got to see linguists I knew at Swarthmore or whom I had met on the grad school open house circuit again, and it was great to catch up with them.

I presented my paper first thing on Friday morning. It was nice to get it over with and have the rest of the day to absorb other people’s research without worrying about my own talk. I particularly appreciated Bernard Perley’s invited talk on reframing the rhetoric and metaphors around language death and endangerment (in essence, he would like to see linguists talk about language life instead of language death). I thought what he had to say was hugely important and rightly challenged us linguists to think hard about the ethics of linguistic fieldwork. He also gently (but directly) called out the previous invited speaker on an aspect of her talk, which had been just hours before his. I have no doubt that was an uncomfortable moment, and for more of us than just the invited speaker, but I think Dr. Perley was right to point out what he did because we can’t change what we don’t realize we’re doing wrong.

My colleagues from UCLA were both presenting in the Beyond Field Methodologies session. I was particularly eager for my field methods professor’s talk because it was about me! Okay, not really. It was about our class’s experience taking a monolingual approach to doing field methods on Maragoli and about monolingual fieldwork in general. That evening, our little UCLA contingent of three went out for Chicago deep-dish pizza.

On Saturday, I skipped out on the conference to go to the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (C2E2). I’d been planning this ever since I’d learned that author Rachel Hartman would be appearing at C2E2 and that C2E2 was the same weekend as CLS. The timing worked out beautifully. It was my first time at a comic con, and I felt kind of out of my element among the crowds of cosplayers, but the costumes were pretty amazing.

The panel I’d come for was one of the few book-related panels and was about worldbuilding. In addition to Rachel Hartman, there were six other panelists, including the guy who writes the Star Wars Shakespeare (Shakespeare Star Wars?) books. I particularly liked the discussion of creating maps and of the authors’ favorite worlds. And best of all, I had the good fortune of getting to have dinner with Rachel, which was delightful.

Afterwards, I made my way back to the CLS banquet. Dinner was over, but the evening’s entertainment was just getting underway. And by entertainment I mean hours of karaoke, a CLS tradition. Now, I am not a karaoke person; I’ve always declined invitations to UCLA linguistics karaoke. I guess after my solos in the Georgian chorus concert I can no longer say that I do not sing in front of people without at least ten other people singing along with me, but the fact remains that my familiarity with popular music is so poor that most of the time I really can’t participate. I honestly don’t know the vast majority of songs that one could use for karaoke. Indeed, as other people went up to sing songs that are evidently well-known, I usually found myself recognizing the chorus or some chord progression but not knowing the melody, much less the words, to the verses.

It was fun to watch, though, and there were some pretty talented singers as well as dancers. A highlight was a non-karaoke number, in which two grad students sang a Greek song accompanied by clarinet and bouzouki. Bouzouki! I want a bouzouki. People also sang in Russian, Turkish, Japanese, and Indonesian. And Mandarin, which is how I ended up doing karaoke after all. I’d gotten up from our table briefly, and I came back just as a USC grad student I knew was singing a line from a song in Chinese. I said, “Hey, I know that song!”

Long story short, I found myself at the front of the hall with the USC grad student and a third grad student, and we sang the Taiwanese song 對面的女孩看過來, which, as far as I can tell, is about the inscrutability of girls. It brought me back to Chinese department New Year’s parties in the Swarthmore Friends Meetinghouse, which is the last place I sang this song, with the other students in my Chinese class. All I remembered of this song was the first line and the chorus, and although the karaoke video we’d found on Youtube had the words, they were obviously in Chinese characters, many of which I’ve forgotten. So I watched them fly by and jumped in on random pronouns or easy stuff like 很可愛. And the chorus, thank goodness.

So, you didn’t think I’d ever do karaoke? Yeah, me neither. I guess I do better with languages other than English. Maybe next time I’ll attempt a rendition of “Je fais de toi mon essentiel”…

The Evolution of a Deaf Character

As I mentioned last week, I attended the Linguistic Society of America’s annual meeting at the beginning of January. One of the talks I was particularly looking forward to was the plenary address by Susan Goldin-Meadow, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and a pioneer in the field of gesture studies. Her speech was entitled “From homesign to sign language: Creating language in the manual modality.” The reason I was so interested in this talk is because Susan Goldin-Meadow actually had an indirect influence on Sparkers. In the book, Marah’s younger brother Caleb is deaf. His deafness has been one of the few points of intersection of my writing and my study of linguistics, and it’s certainly the one that has preoccupied me the most.

The summer after my sophomore year of college, I worked for a University of Minnesota professor who was studying the gestures preschoolers make as they talk in the context of make-believe play. My job was to watch videos of preschoolers over and over and transcribe and categorize their gestures. I also began a literature review, which is how I first came across Goldin-Meadow’s work.

Goldin-Meadow has two main research interests: co-speech gesture and homesign. It was the former that was relevant to my summer research, but the latter also piqued my interest. Homesign is “the gestural communication system developed by a deaf child who lacks input from a language model in the family. This is a common experience for deaf children with hearing parents who are isolated from a sign language community” (thank you, Wikipedia). I don’t remember having an “aha!” moment, but that must have been the first time I had the vocabulary to describe how Caleb talked to his mother and sister. He was using homesign, but I had never known to call it that, nor had I thought much about its linguistic or non-linguistic properties.

In her speech in January, Goldin-Meadow demonstrated that homesign is more language-like than gesture (that is, what hearing people use when they talk) but is not full-fledged sign language. Though of course I learned a lot of new things from her talk, the core distinctions between gesture, homesign, and sign language were the ones I remembered from before, the ones which had been shaping how I thought about Caleb and his ways of communicating for years.

Some background information: Caleb is the only deaf member of his family, and he has never interacted with other deaf people. He and his family communicate using a system of signs. In Sparkers, he’s ten years old. Although he doesn’t go to school, he’s very precocious and enjoys reading his fourteen-year-old sister’s school books.

Originally, Caleb was born deaf. In the earliest drafts, I occasionally referred to the way he and Marah communicated as “sign language.” It’s hard to trace the precise evolution of how I conceived of and portrayed Caleb’s deafness, but it seems it wasn’t until the end of 2011 that I changed my mind about Caleb being deaf from birth. In a document in which I was planning revisions, I noted that Caleb’s reading level was implausible for a child who’d been born deaf. I decided he’d lost his hearing as a toddler as a result of meningitis. In this revision document, I also specifically called Caleb’s signs “homesign.”

Early last year, while visiting grad schools, I met several linguistics students and professors who were doing research on sign languages and language acquisition and reading ability in deaf children. This was during a time when I felt like linguistics and writing were pulling me in different directions, so I actually appreciated that these visits were drawing the two together by making me think hard about Caleb. But they also made me wonder just how well or badly I had written this deaf character, who was now an inextricable part of a novel that was about to be sold.

Attending Susan Goldin-Meadow’s plenary address three weeks ago brought all these old wonderings back, as well as sparking some new ones. I’m not finished thinking about Caleb, so I don’t really have an ending to this post, except to say that I’m grateful for the occasional convergence of my linguistics and writing lives.