Linguist Donna Jo Napoli Honored for Work on Behalf of Deaf Children

by Zach Epstein
Donna Jo Napoli
The LSA describes Napoli as an "eloquent spokesperson on behalf of our field, showing how ideas about language can achieve societal benefit," and further credits her with having "elevated the discussion of early language experience of deaf children in a new and humane way, moving forward where others would have given up in frustration."

Professor of Linguistics Donna Jo Napoli has been named the 2014 recipient of the Linguistics, Language, and the Public Award by the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), in recognition of her contributions to the medical profession and the public about the acquisition of sign language, and the importance of exposure to language at an early age.

The LSA describes Napoli as an "eloquent spokesperson on behalf of our field, showing how ideas about language can achieve societal benefit," and further credits her with having "elevated the discussion of early language experience of deaf children in a new and humane way, moving forward where others would have given up in frustration." Napoli will accept the award at the annual meeting of the LSA in January.

"I'm happy to accept it on behalf of the team," says Napoli. "It feels terrific that the language rights of deaf children are being recognized by such a large and influential organization." Her team, which includes other linguists, a psychologist, an education specialist, and a pediatrician, gives information to those who advise new parents about the language and education options for their deaf children.

"Ninety-six percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents," she says. "The parents typically have little prior knowledge of deaf issues and so turn to others for guidance."

Napoli and her team make sure that doctors and audiologists are giving parents the most beneficial advice. "Right now, many health professionals operate on the idea that the choice is between a sign language and a spoken language - and that the choice is cultural," she says. "To the contrary, there is no evidence that a child need be restricted to learning only one modality of language and much evidence that the bimodal child has strong advantages."

Napoli is also currently teaching a course, Supporting Literacy Among Deaf Children, in partnership with her friend Gene Mirus, an assistant professor of American Sign Language and deaf studies at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Napoli and Mirus are each teaching the same curriculum on their respective campuses, while their students often collaborate both in-person and through video chat.

"We are trying to create e-books that will be a delight for a child and adult to share, in the hopes that this will encourage them to share books often," Napoli says of the course's purpose. Napoli received a SEED grant from Swarthmore's Information Technology Services to assist her in developing and using the technology needed to produce the e-books. The Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility and the Swarthmore Foundation also provided support, funded travel, supplied food on trips to D.C., and provided iPads for Napoli and her students to use. Swarthmore's Hungerford Faculty Fellowship also allowed the Linguistics Department to obtain a course replacement, freeing up Napoli to teach this unique course.

"This is an entirely experimental course and it's going beautifully, thanks to the amazing support of this campus," she says.

In addition to the work being recognized by the LSA, Napoli is currently involved in research on the biomechanics of signing and the visual principles observed in signing, sign literature, sign morphology, and tactile intelligence, among other projects.

Also known for her fiction work, Napoli is a prolific writer whose most recent books, a young adult novel entitled Skin and a picture book called A Single Pearl, were both released this fall. She is also teaching creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania this semester.