Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/12/2009 (4530 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Try explaining a common English metaphor such as "He blew up" to someone whose first language is not English.
Then try explaining in American Sign Language that it's about anger, not exploding, and that the universal concept of going up is not actually involved. Or try explaining all that in the sign language of someone whose first language is not English.
University of Manitoba linguistics professor Erin Wilkinson certainly can explain it.
Wilkinson is into firsts in a serious way.
Wilkinson believes she's the first deaf professor at the U of M, and Canada's first deaf linguistics professor. There's only a handful of deaf linguists in the U.S. and Wilkinson is aware of only two other deaf professors in Canada in any discipline.
"My work really focuses on comparative sign languages. There is so little research," Wilkinson explained through her full-time interpreter, Sherra Hall.
Born into a hearing family in Missouri, Wilkinson grew up signing and being an avid reader. It was only when she went to Norway to take some undergraduate courses that Wilkinson realized that each country has its own sign language, and that not even all countries with a common spoken and written language have the same sign language.
A light went on above her head.
Wilkinson realized that in learning English within a hearing family, she'd been studying language and practising linguistics since she'd started elementary school. And loving it.
"I think linguistics actually picked me. I've always been interested in languages," she said with a laugh.
"I've learned Italian, I've learned Norwegian, I've learned Japanese" in sign, Wilkinson said. "In my dissertation, I studied 40 different sign languages from all over the world."
The U of M recruited Wilkinson after linguistics department head Prof. Terry Janzen, who signs, kept running into Wilkinson while at conferences.
Canadians sign in the English, French, and Inuit languages, she said. Canadians use ASL in English, but there's a completely different sign language in the United Kingdom.
Fortunately, she said, "Many foreign people are familiar with ASL."
Wilkinson emphasized she does not teach ASL, she teaches the linguistics of ASL and other sign languages. For instance, that's where metaphors come in, and how to analyze meaning in a variety of languages, she said.