Dr. Wells-Jensen is an Associate Professor and Co-Director of the ESOL Program at Bowling Green State University. She also coordinates BGSU's Minor in Linguistics.
Her teaching and research interests include phonetics, applied phonology, psycholinguistics, speech production (especially slips of the tongue), language preservation, braille and xenolinguistics. (http://personal.bgsu.edu/~swellsj/)
I had an opportunity to visit with Dr. Wells-Jensen recently when she visited The University of Arizona to give a lecture to the Behavioral Analysis Department. Dr. Wells-Jensen is married, and has two daughters. She is blind, a fact which she say defines her no more than any personality trait.
Dianne: Thank you for taking the time to visit with me today, Sheri. As I read about you on the web, it became clear that you have many fun projects and interests. What is your current most interesting project?
Sheri: Well, it’s hard to isolate them…. So I’ll tell you a couple of them.
One of my beginning linguistics classes has been documenting Oroha, which is a language spoken on the Solomon Islands by fewer than 38 people We have developed the only dictionary of Oroha in existence. We have the only transcribed copies of some traditional Oroha folktales, and we have a working sketch of their grammar.
So the background to this is that there are about 7,000 languages spoken on earth. If things proceed the way they are (and there is no good reason to think that they won’t,) about 50% of those languages will be extinct in the next century (some people say 90%) so if you do the math, that means that every two weeks a language dies. And we are not talking about remnants of a language, but the full language- every bit as rich and diverse and expressive as the English language or any other languages. We’re working with one of the last speakers of the language (Oroha.) We have most of linguist guide and that allows us to channel the wisdom and knowledge of the native speakers. We use that to help them systematize it.
The project is on fire, it has to be done now- you can’t say in 20 years someone will take care of that because in 20 years all the elders will be gone who speak the language most fluently. It is both our ethical responsibility and fascinating work to document and describe these languages before the last speaker dies, because once they are gone, they are gone and we can’t get them back. If you look at it pragmatically, folks speaking this language have been immersed in this culture so they know things about the flora and fauna that western science simple does not know. So one of the ways to capture that knowledge about the natural world, the botany and biology is to capture it with the language. Within the language, within the tale told in the language you find out what herb is good for what, what plant occupies what geological niche. All that knowledge along with the grammar will be gone when the language is gone.
Dianne: My favorite project was the slips page, which was extremely funny and also scared me to death because I thought, “Oh no! I’ll never be able to speak around her.
Sheri: Well I hope you read the part about how linguistics are descriptive and we don’t judge people based on how they talk, we just go yea that’s cool. I like it because it is such a good way of looking inside how a language is constructed and not so much about the Freudian slips. The data are just fun! You get to talk about difficult topics, while at the same time we get to talk about goofy things some kid said was a mistake, so data is delightful, and it’s a beautiful thing. It literally comes out of junk that people feel bad about. You take that junk and you use it to answer some of the most profound questions that human beings have, which is how we speak. The formation of these theories comes out of the absolutely rejected. In that garbage that is disregarded are these precious insights into how the language works.
Dianne: Tell me about your class in which you have students create their own language.
Sheri: it is an intro to linguist class, where we learn about the structure of language. People learn about phonetics, the sounds of languages, and then they learn about how words are built. When they are done with that, I want to make students fully responsible for studying, learning and maintaining in their heads one set of info and move to the next and then integrate it. For example when we do phonetics, people choose a bunch of sounds they think they want to work with and they tell me how likely it is a natural language will have that set of sounds. I give the students some words and they compound them to make new words, based on what kind of culture they want. I’ve just had some people do some really fun things like the language spoken by Christmas tree ornaments, the language spoken by vending machines, or the language spoken by hobbits. In the language spoken by Christmas tree ornaments, for example if I ask them to make the word for rain, they would say “Okay, well Christmas tree ornaments don’t know anything about rain.” They might call it foreign water or they might just not have a word for it at all. They think about the potential interaction between how people think and what their culture is and what their language does and whether it makes a difference in what you call something. Pretend for me it does matter and it is reflective of your culture what you choose to call something, and design your language accordingly. If you have a language where your culture is gender neutral then what does your pronoun system look like? Are you going to have a he and a she and an it? Are you going to have different kinds of she’s and he’s, or no distinction at all. They need to stop using the English system (it is a great system but it’s only one way of thinking about it;) quit doing that from today until April… just quit it….let go of how it is, and think how you would like to develop it .
Dianne: Another one of your projects that I am interested in is your desire for the sighted world to learn and use Braille; what is that about it?
Sheri: Well, I think Braille is cool and I like to share it! Part of the low literacy rate in Braille (we’ve got a 10% literacy rate meaning only 10% of our children or older folks who could benefit from a good way to read tactilely are able to do so.) We’ve got this vast illiteracy rate. One reason that is often cited in the literature, and that I hear people say a lot, is the exoticism of Braille and this belief that it is this arcane and really complex and sort of almost mystical system, and they refer to Braille as the “language of the blind” and people imply that there is almost something creepy about touching it. All this stuff is piled on it. It is not more complicated than Japanese in the end they are both languages. Braille is just English written differently. Braille is useful to me, not just because I can’t see. If I could see Braille would still be useful to me, because I could do other things with my eyes but I’m still reading; we call it eyes free access. If I were a sighted person I could be reading Braille on my keyboard and watching something else, or I can read Braille under the table at meetings. I can do this because I can read Braille, not because I am blind. If I can show people that it is not this exotic, foreign thing, its just a thing- a cool fun thing- a useful thing. I could teach people how to play cards tactically. Play cards while looking at something else. Definitely people might think that would be fun, for both sighted people and blind people. And I think it takes some of the fear of blindness away, which brings me closer to the people that don’t want to deal with me now. When someone’s loved one loses sight it doesn’t seem like learning Braille is such a body blow, such an extra burden. It seems like the answer to a problem. It is if I only have print that I have a problem because I can’t read it. Braille is my access to information. Braille is my way to read different material and my access to freedom. It helps me at work. If other people could stop thinking of it as a penalty for people that can’t read print or something so arcane and unusual that they could never do it, then I think our literacy rates will go up.
I want to be the strongest advocate for Braille that I can be while I continue to recognize that there are many similar paths to the same goals. I also record books; there are many ways of doing things. I remember governor Paterson, the blind guy who was governor of New York, and there was a huge fuss that he was not using Braille to do his job and how can he do his job without Braille. I mean after all he was the governor of New York! I can’t walk around saying that Braille is the only path –if he was a Braille reader it would’ve been super useful to him and I think his life would have been easier. He is actually employed by the National Federation of the Blind now and is a lobbyist for Braille issues.
The people that need Braille don’t have economic power. I’m not saying there is no voice for blind people. We have to support Braille even though we are not the dominate population, don’t control lots of money and have a 70 percent unemployment rate. We need to do everything possible and talk with one another When we need money for a project then we cannot just do a bake sale just for us. Community has to work together to support projects. There are differences in disabilities with different needs but we all need something.
Dianne: You reviewed a book titled “Illegal Alphabets and Adult Biliteracy: Latino Migrants Crossing the Linguistic Border” by Tomas Mario Kalmar. I was very interested in this because of all the border issues that we have around here. Having English as a second language and living in an English speaking country becomes in and of itself a disability. People limit the idea of disability more than they need to.
Sheri: That makes me think about the concept of universal design. If we design our information and the spaces of our communities so that everyone is benefited-inclusive…it’s not just the oh golly we have to put up some rails or ramps... but the ramps benefits everyone…there’s none of this that hurts people. People sometime view it as attempts for access as servicing or benefiting one segment of the population at the expense of others. With care and insight we can design a space that is truly accessible, and it’s a better space for all of us, not just for the one person who couldn’t get in the door 10 months ago and now they can, but now that whole space is better…. pragmatically, emotionally , spiritually it is a better space for our community to be in because we don’t actually know who’s going to come with what need. If we truly design the space to be welcoming then we’ve made our group in a better position to manage stresses.
Dianne: I read the article that you wrote when you daughter was 4 years old. She’s 11 now; how has her perspective changed on things?
Sherri: It’s fascinating to look at her at her developing mature understanding of disability. I’m sure she can’t articulate things, but I go out of my way to explain and discuss things overtly with her, and I have an 8-year-old as well. We talk about things, or more to the point, because they are children and I’m their mom, I say things and they respond or not. But they see the way people treat me sometimes, and they hear my stories, and they don’t have much to say about it. I think that from Claire’s perspective, the last eight years hasn’t changed much for her, except that she is increasingly confused. I love this about her- she’s increasingly confused about the outside world. She sees how things run in our house and she sees that the roles and the tasks that we take up in our house are divided up by personality. There are things I am willing to do, things that my spouse is willing to do and they are not divided up by who can see and who can’t (well except for the driving of the car,) the rest is all divided up by who is willing to do this job and who is suited to carry out this parenting task. So that hierarchy that she is beginning to glimpse now in the real world or the outside world, outside of our home, does not make any sense to her at all. I love that about her.
The thing that I worry about with her and her little sister is that I am not doing enough to cushion their arrival into the real world. I don’t think it is a service to her to teach her these things without giving her defenses against what the rest of the world thinks. I worry that I am constructing a universe where everything tries hard to be just and fair, and the impact that has when she exits home and goes into places and spaces that are not controlled by people that care that she might be tremendously hurt and confused. Frankly people who have bigoted and discriminatory ideas or thoughts about disability are not invited into my home because it is my sanctuary. I deal with those people outside of my home. But the people that she sees us bring and welcome into our home are a wide variety of folks with different abilities; some from different countries and backgrounds and they all respect me enough to want to come to my house and let me cook for them. That honesty excludes a chunk of people, so she is not intimately associated with people like that.
Dianne: I was also interested in your voice database project – how’s that coming?
Sherri: That is a project that desperately needs funding and I it just has to happen. I don’t think the story of how we came up with the idea for the project is on the web yet. It all started with an argument with my spouse-he is a great guy. I said to him “ Yes, let’s go to that movie that has Tom Cruise in it. I love Tom Cruise!” And he said “No you don’t. You hate Tom Cruise, “ and I said, “Don’t be stupid, I know who I love. I love Tom Cruise. And he said, “No you love Tom Hanks” and I said, “NO I Don’t!” And this argument went on way longer than it should have and both of us got quite indignant.
And the reality is, if it had been two sighted people having the argument, he could’ve just gone to Google and typed in images: Tom Cruise, and proved there’s Tom Cruise. End of argument. But that wasn’t going to help me; what I needed and what I still need- is a place for you to go and type in a person’s name and hear their voice. No messing around with images, no messing around with who’s the interviewer and who is the interviewee, no messing around trying to find a high quality sound clip- just go to a place, type in sound and hear the voice. It turns out he was right by the way, it is Tom Hanks I like not Tom Cruise -- so I was wrong. But it was the beginning of the idea. It’s not happening yet, but I hope it does, I desperately hope it does. It’s like Braille in a way- the sound of a person’s voice is an essential reflection of who that person is and it’s as important as what they look like—you know how important that is. It’s a way to connect with the person that is as intimate as seeing their face. But because so many people are looking at faces, they don’t know how much they yearn to hear the voice.
I have a voice clip of Helen Keller for example, and when I heard it I cried. It was a connection with her I did not even I know I wanted. Why is it so hard to find? If you want a picture of her, I have to assume there are plenty you can find. I suppose everyone knows what she looked like, I knew she learned to talk, but I had no idea what her voice was like, what would it be like to be in her presence. If you can see her face you have some idea of what it was like to be in her presence because you can see what she looked like, but an equally important human way of connecting to people is not readily available and it really should be.
Dianne: What has been most debilitating about your disability?
Sherri: When you are pushed out (like people with disabilities are) and your aware of it and you feel it and you know what’s that’s like….it’s one of the worst feelings in the world I think to be intentionally excluded- not even hatefully excluded. I think it would be easier if it was hatefully done, but to be intentionally separated from what you desperately want –which is what we all want, which is community-- and to be intentionally set aside is one of the worst things you can do to someone. To be called worthless- not even worthless because something worthless could be redeemed- that you are so different from everybody else that there’s not even a word for it. That is such a demoralizing disabling event in our lives and it’s ongoing. I think that can open you up to the most extravagant joy, because you have sort of stretched yourself in that one direction and having stretched that far you can stretch that far the other way. Being able to experience the depth gives you access to the heights. I don’t know if you can be profoundly joyful if you’ve never been profoundly sad.
Dianne: I have often said, the only people in life who are real had to experience some bad stuff…then they are real….
Sherri: I grew up with a lot of patronizing. “Oh look at those poor little disabled kids.” I mean “Yea, you know shut up!” because you don’t know what you are talking about. It is a way to put you down. I think that maybe they see inherent in the disability the sorrow. That’s not what it is. The source of sorrow is being set aside. I have been very frustrated that I can’t read something or there’s something I’m struggling with because I can’t see it. I’ve been very frustrated by things like that, but that has never broken my heart. Blindness has never broken my heart-- it never could because it is just a thing that happened to your body. It’s other people’s reaction to it and it’s other people’s thought of what happened in my life that is so much more destructive than not being able to see stuff, (which is a pain in the ass... I’m sorry but it is) There is so much more left, that is not what my life is about- those 6 things I can’t do, but that is what my life is about to those other people.
Dianne: Where can I go on the web to find links to your projects?
Sherri: The place I put my fun stuff is http://fridaynightlinguistics.org. That’s where the really good versions of slips are with recordings and stuff. It is where we have a Braille song that came from one summer; the kids were trying to play musical chairs and they needed some music. I have some friends that played the track for it. I actually think that song is brilliant. It is really funny.
Dianne: Thank you Sherri for taking the time to visit with me today.
Sherri: I enjoyed this very much.