The giant globe in the middle of Planet Word, a museum in downtown Washington, D.C., reminds visitors that there is a world of languages out there. And for the past few weeks, they have been invited to step up to a table nearby to be introduced to one they may have seen, but do not know much about: American Sign Language (ASL).

“You’re going to learn three signs and try to produce them yourself,” explains Tessa Goldlust, one of the students working this summer at the Language Science Station, a groundbreaking collaboration between researchers from Gallaudet University, Howard University, and the University of Maryland that is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The team has been trained to collect data for several studies, including “Guess the Story,” which comes from Gallaudet’s Dr. Deanna Gagne, Assistant Professor in the Linguistics program.

Gagne — Gallaudet’s principal investigator on the Language Science Station project, which began last year — developed this study to build on research collected in the summer of 2022. That study, called “Guess the Sign,” asked participants what they thought a sign meant. Other than “baby,” “cry,” and “four,” the signs stumped many of them. “What I love is the opportunity to educate the public. We interacted with 1,000 people, ages 5 to 90,” Gagne says.

“Guess the Story” takes this work one step further, she explains, by teaching participants a few signs, and then having them watch a video to try to identify those signs. “There is a false impression that ASL is all pantomime,” Gagne says. So this research can challenge that idea while gathering valuable data that could impact educational methods and policies.

The protocol includes offering some basic information about ASL and breaking down misconceptions. “People are unaware there are other sign languages,” notes Goldlust, an anthropology major at George Washington University. “We meet them where they’re at.” The student team members have been trained by Gagne and other Gallaudet researchers on how to start a dialogue and answer questions as participants go through the various phases of the study.

Two people standing and discussing the Planet World. One with long brown curly hair ad the other with short brown hair and glasses.
The Language Science Station at Planet Word is a groundbreaking collaboration between Gallaudet University, Howard University, and the University of Maryland.

From start to finish, it is designed to take just seven minutes, but it can take up to half an hour, “depending on how long they want to chat about it,” says Project Associate Hannah Mechtenberg, a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut. It has not been difficult to recruit visitors to take a seat, says Lab Manager Jessica Orozco Contreras. “In a language museum, people are disposed to learning. They come up to us and want to jump into it,” she says.

Although the study is meant to be one-on-one, there has been interest from groups who want to participate together, adds Orozco Contreras, who recently ran it with a bunch of six-year-olds. The shared information they glean from the experience stays with them as they see other exhibits — and hopefully, out into the world. “We hear them chatting about it through the museum,” she says.

“Guess the Story” will continue to be part of the Language Science Station’s work through the fall and spring, alongside studies from the project’s other leaders, including principal investigators Dr. Charlotte Vaughn and Dr. Yi Ting Huang from the University of Maryland and Howard University principal investigator Dr. Patrick Plummer. They are aiming to collect enough meaningful data to publish their findings, Mechtenberg says.

Being exposed to Gallaudet research — and researchers — is an especially powerful tool for engaging the public, says Thomas Sims, a Georgetown student who was on the team in 2022 and returned this summer as a mentor. “I will admit I came into the course with some of the misconceptions we want to teach people about,” they say. “I met people from Gallaudet and spent time with them. Now, I’m hoping to learn ASL.”

That is also a common sentiment among participants in the “Guess the Story” study, which is why many of them grab handouts that Gagne created that offer resources and additional information. One presents the ASL alphabet and some simple phrases, while the other focuses on sign language variations. “You can’t go wrong learning a language,” says 19- year-old Mitch Marti, a museum visitor from Philadelphia. “Doing this changed the way I thought about ASL.”

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