Silent Research Is Her Sign


Watching deaf students communicating in the Student Union fascinated me,” Dr. Wendy Sandler said. “Like hearing students anywhere, they chatted animatedly, laughed, ate, and danced to the blasting music. I thought to myself, they are talking exactly as we do, but not with speech. How then? What is this wonderful language? Ever since then, I have been trying to answer that question.

Sandler’s interest in the language of the deaf--sign language--began when she was asked to teach Hebrew to deaf students at Gallaudet College in Washington, DC; in 1976. Now a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics in the Department of English Language and Literature, she was then beginning a B.A. in linguistics at Georgetown University and also working as Head of the Aliya Desk for B’nai B’rith. During her spare time she taught Hebrew to the staff. B’nai B’rith received a call from Gallaudet asking for help in obtaining a Hebrew teacher, she related, explaining that Gallaudet is a college for deaf students only and all its classes are conducted in sign language. As coincidences go, she had just seen a television documentary program on the college and had thought it a remarkable place.

B’nai B’rith gave her name to Gallaudet, which contacted her. “I agreed at once,” she continued, “but I told them that I had no knowledge of sign language. ‘We’ll teach you!’ they said.” Undaunted, Sandler took a two-month intensive American sign-language course, which was taught by deaf Gallaudet teachers, and mastered sufficient Sign to teach Hebrew to nine students for one semester. The reading and writing course was taught in American sign language. When referring to Hebrew words, Sandler spelled them out, using the Hebrew finger-spelling alphabet.
According to Sandler, research over the past thirty years has shown conclusively that sign languages are as complex as oral languages, with their own grammatical structures, rules, and patterns; and there is no limit to what can be said in sign. It arises, as oral language does, from the needs of members of a community to communicate with each other,” Sandler remarked. Sign languages are not related to spoken languages; even American and British sign language are independent of each other.

Grants from the Israel Science Foundation and Israel Foundations Trustees have enabled her to research the grammatical structure of Israeli sign language and compare it to that of American sign language. With a grant from the Binational Science Foundation, the lecturer is currently working with an American colleague researching the form and structure of words in the two sign languages, and their implications for linguistic theory.
Sandler works only with deaf people who have deaf parents and, therefore, learned their communication system in a natural way, as hearing children learn theirs. One of her present consultants, as she calls the people she works with, is studying architecture at the Technion and another is studying at Tel Aviv University to be a teacher of deaf children. Sandler pointed out that a deaf student faces a difficult time at an Israeli university, especially since there is only limited government funding for assisting deaf students. “The best option for deaf students,” she says, “is high quality simultaneous interpreting, but unfortunately students are unable to afford this for all their lectures.

The American-born Sandler, who received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in 1987 and came to Haifa the following year, talked about her current research in this silent communication medium. She has found an interesting parallel between sign and oral languages in intonation. In spoken language, she explains, intonation is conveyed through the pitch and rhythm of the voice. In sign language, it is conveyed by facial expression and body posture. Each type of sentence requires a different facial expression as shown by the photographs.

Contact with the deaf community has led Sandler, whose book on American sign language, Phonological Representation of the Sign, was published in 1989, to other projects. A present goal is to videotape a series of children’s stories in Israeli Sign Language. “Deaf people don’t need pity or charity,” she says. “All they need is equal access to information, education and culture. Their language, Sign Language, is a rich and potent medium for this.
Sandler is married and has a teenage daughter.

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