Student minces no words with new sign language
(CNN) -- A college student's thesis examining sign languages from around the world could provide autistic children or stroke-impaired adults with a new method to communicate.
The gestures are simple, mime-like and require a minimal number of separate movements. Those components, the thesis adviser said, make signing easier for people who might have finite motor skills or limited memory.
Nikki Kissane, a 21-year-old who will graduate from the University of Virginia this weekend, started the project of assembling and creating the signing system in January 1998. She submitted it as her senior thesis.
Kissane attended a magnet high school for science and technology that stressed research, and as a senior worked on human genome projects.
"I wanted to continue research because knew I wanted to go to medical school and that might impress medical schools. But I didn't want to go back into the lab. I wanted to do something with people."
John Bonvillian, Kissane's freshman psychology teacher and thesis adviser, suggested the signing project as a way to meld medical and psychological research.
"When he said it might be a way to help stroke victims, that perked up my ears," said Kissane.
Both of her grandfathers had suffered strokes, but neither lost his speech.
The system could benefit people who might not have the time to learn the intricacies of a complete signing language. Bonvillian said it could also help caregivers in institutions or parents of children with impairments learn to communicate quickly.
"If signs look like the action or object they are referring to, it is easier for people to learn," Bonvillian said.
He received an e-mail Thursday from a man whose mother lost the ability to speak after doctors removed a malignant tumor from her brain. The man was seeking a method that would allow him and his mother to communicate.
Finding the words
American Sign Language is a full, complex language and some of its gestures are too difficult for people who cannot make fine finger movements.
Kissane studied 20 different sign language dictionaries from around world, including those from Africa, Asia and Australia, in order to develop a simpler signing system.
She selected about 900 signs that appeared easy to form and remember and used fellow students to test the signs' usefulness.
Each student received a list of 20 words and their corresponding sign and was asked to make the gesture on cue. Kissane and Bonvillian kept the signs that 70 percent of the participants could recall and properly form. The exercise whittled the list to about 500 words.
"If they could not recall the gestures perfectly, we tried to modify the sign or create a new one that is easier," Bonvillian said.
They are still working on developing gestures for words that are more abstract in nature such as "more" and "please," he said. " 'More' is an important word."
Bonvillian, who studied the use of signing during the 1970s and 1980s, discovered records indicating others explored the topic in the 19th century. He found a rare book in the Yale University library about a British school for the deaf where people tried using sign language to help children with mental retardation communicate.
Kissane's project is getting much more notice. She has posted her thesis on the Web (www.simplifiedsigns.org) and thousands have visited the page, Bonvillian said.
"It didn't occur to me how much attention it would get," Bonvillian added. "It's certainly got to be the most visited thesis in history. That underscores the need to have an effective communication system for non-speakers."
CNN writer Christy Oglesby and WVIR reporter Lonnie Quinn in Charlottesville, Virginia contributed to this story.
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