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Fulbright scholar at Gallaudet researching similarities between Polish, American sign languages

April 27, 2011
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Fulbright scholar, teacher, and author Piotr Tomaszewski–one of the first deaf Poles to receive a Ph.D.–is on campus until July researching the similarities between American Sign Language (ASL) and Polish Sign Language (PJM). Dr. Tomaszewski hopes to determine linguistic universals within different sign languages by comparing ASL and PJM.

The only child of hearing parents, Tomaszewski attended Warsaw School for the Hard of Hearing. There he was educated orally and communicated with peers through gestures, but was simultaneously introduced to PJM through classmates who had deaf parents. Because communicating through sign language was unacceptable in school, after lessons they would go down to the basement and sign to each other in private.

The idea of becoming a teacher was first sparked when Tomaszewski began helping his younger classmates with their homework. “It was then that I realized that I could teach the deaf,” Tomaszewski recalled. He earned his master’s degree in deaf education at the Academy of Special Education in 1997, then worked for 10 years at Institute of the Deaf in Warsaw, where he educated deaf children bilingually. While working as a teacher and studying for his Ph.D. in psychology in the field of psycholinguistics from the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Psychology, which he received in 2004, Tomaszewski tested the theory that the effectiveness of bilingual education is determined by the level of bilingual competence of the teacher.

Much like the emphasis of some United States educators on Signing Exact English and language development, it is a widely-held belief in Poland that PJM is not a true language and that signing exact Polish will make it more likely for deaf children to succeed. While teaching, Tomaszewski’s goal was to prove to the Polish community that deaf people can achieve success when their primary language is PJM. His students flourished with above-average grades.

After confirming the theory, Tomaszewski began to extensively study American research of sign language, from which he acquired a strong base knowledge of the grammar of PJM. Unlike the United States’ plentiful resources about ASL, there are few resources for PJM in Poland. This lack of research is one of the reasons that Tomaszewski wrote a book entitled Visual Phonology of Polish Sign Language, published in 2010, analyzing the phonology of PJM on the basis of the corpus of original signed texts created by deaf native and near-native signers from Poland.

Tomaszewski applied for the Fulbright Scholar Program in 2009 at the University of Warsaw, where he is an assistant professor and scientist in the Department of Psychology, and was accepted as a research scholar. The Fulbright program provides funding for foreign scholars to visit the United States, and is a unique opportunity for both parties to experience working with people from different cultures. Tomaszewski is grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with several Gallaudet faculty members and researchers, including his sponsor, Dr. Susan Mather, and Dr. Gaurav Mathur, both from the Department of Linguistics, as he conducted comparative examinations between PJM and ASL.

“American and Polish Sign Languages have marked similarities and differences,” Mather said. “No doubt about it, his study will further linguistics in sign language.”

Mathur added, “This kind of research is vital to the deaf communities of both the United States and Poland because it improves our understanding of sign languages, and also provides new, practical information about the structure of sign languages which can be used for teaching in a variety of settings.”

Throughout the course of his research at Gallaudet, Tomaszewski will be analyzing and comparing PJM and ASL. He will work with his collaborators to gather material about deaf culture and ASL, hold scientific workshops, enrich his knowledge of sign linguistics, and prepare scientific papers for publication.

“If the linguistic universals between ASL and PJM can be defined and properly documented, it is possible that the Polish community will realize that PJM is a real language,” Tomaszewski pointed out.

A book that Tomaszewski co-authored, New Ideas in Developing and Supporting Exceptional People: Essays in the Honor of Tadeusz Gałkowski, has been published, as well as 20 journal articles and 13 book chapters, all related to the field of linguistics and psycholinguistics. His dissertation concerned formal and functional analysis of linguistic and non-verbal behavior of deaf children as homesigners.

Although being one of the first deaf Poles with a Ph.D. is quite an accomplishment, Tomaszewski remains modest and attributes his success to hard work. He encourages other deaf Poles to work toward a doctorate degree, but points out that he has learned firsthand that there is no easy path to success.

–Tanya Sturgis, student writer, Office of Public and Media Relations

 

27 April 2011

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