Although Misa Suzuki grew up deaf in Japan, it wasn’t until she was 20 years old and attended a linguistics presentation that she began to fully understand the value of Japanese Sign Language. “I learned that my language has science behind it, and I wanted to know more,” says Suzuki, who is now working on dual Master’s degrees in Linguistics and Sign Language Education. “If I had never seen that presentation, I might not be here.”

It is not just Suzuki. Most young people — whether they’re in the United States or anywhere else — never get much exposure to linguistics or the cognitive sciences. For deaf children in particular, this field is helpful for understanding how they navigate the world. That’s why Suzuki and Bonnie Barrett, who is also pursuing an M.A. in Linguistics, are leading a new project developed by a team of Gallaudet graduate students to bring lessons on these topics to deaf schools. “In Your Hands: Promoting Early Diverse Deaf Engagement in the Cognitive Sciences” won a $5,000 grant from the Cognitive Science Society’s
inaugural Broadening Participation in Cognitive Science Initiative.

Their collaborators — Wadha Alshammari, Marjorie Bates, Phoenix Cook, Michaela Okosi, Joseph Palagano, and Masashi Tamura — represent a range of specialties, including education, linguistics, neuroscience, and psychology. “I have already learned so much from everyone,” says Barrett, who is excited for the team to bring cognitive science activities to deaf K-12 students. “I had never met anyone with a PhD in Linguistics until I entered the Linguistics program here. They’re going to meet adults studying these things that they’ve maybe never learned about before.”

A key lesson they want to instill is that linguistics and cognitive science are for everyone, even elementary school students. They just need materials and activities, such as games and videos, geared to the correct grade level, Suzuki explains. The plan is to bring their program to four local deaf residential schools this year.

“We are going to start with what students know, and focus on ASL to open the discussion,” Barrett says. For example, for second graders, they might show the sign for “cat,” and ask the kids about the “F” shape they are making with their hand. What other signs use that hand shape? What English words start with F? Then they can launch into a deeper exploration of bilingualism. For middle and high school students, they can introduce more challenging concepts. “They are already scientists, though they may not have realized it yet,” she adds. 

Their lesson plans will be made publicly available along with a short video in ASL they will produce to inspire interest within the deaf and hard of hearing community. Any school will be able to use these materials and revise them to fit their specific needs. Suzuki would love to make this program international, and translate it into other sign languages to boost deaf participation in language science around the world. Deaf people should be leading the work in Japan on Japanese Sign Language, she says, but because many of them are deprived of opportunities, they are not aware of their potential to become researchers.

Suzuki and Barrett are grateful for the support they have received throughout this process from faculty sponsor Dr. Deanna Gagne, Associate Professor in the Linguistics department. She taught them the methods and tools required for this project, and encouraged them to put together their application. “She told us, ‘Even if you don’t get it, it’s a great experience to apply for a grant,’” Suzuki says. Now that they have funding, they look forward to helping cultivate prospective researchers. “We are striving to plant these seeds to grow the future of cognitive science, with more access, inclusion, and collaboration,” Barrett says.

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