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Sign Language Linguistics (Linguistics)
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Rosanna van der Zee

"Sign Language Linguistics is a really tight-knit group. You often work together as a group, and as a result I’ve made a lot of great friends."

Rosanne graduated from the Sign Language Linguistics programme in 2008. Now she works as a researcher at the NSDSK (Netherlands Foundation for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children). The NSDSK provides support and care for deaf and hearing impaired children and children with language development disorders.


How did you first come into contact with Sign Language Linguistics?

I noticed the programme at an Open Day and it immediately drew my attention. I was always fascinated by deaf people and sign language. I saw a programme on TV and was instantly interested, and I knew I wanted to do something in that field. I find language itself incredibly interesting, but I’m not someone who is particularly good at learning a foreign language like French or German. Before I started the programme I wasn’t aware of the linguistic aspect of it, but it was the academic approach to understanding languages that I really enjoyed. You begin to look at language in a completely different way.

What kind of way?

Well, you begin to think about the everyday aspects of language you’d considered to be normal. You think, “isn’t it strange that we differentiate between a formal you, ‘u’, and an informal you, ‘je’, and that you don’t necessarily have that in other languages?” That you have different ways of addressing people in other languages, and why that is. Much of that has actually changed over time; in the past you used to say ‘u’ to your parents, and now you say ‘je’. Language has so many different aspects to it and I find that incredibly interesting.

Was Sign Language Linguistics a logical decision following high school?

I was initially enrolled in a physics trajectory, but that wasn’t a great success so I switched. I had taken Greek and Latin, and in both of those courses you work with language, you dissect it. That’s something that’s central to linguistics as well. You ask questions like, “What kind of grammar structure does it use? What does it correspond to?”

Did the people around you understand what you were studying?

No, some people even think I can read braille. And other people are surprised that there isn’t just one sign language for the entire world, so that everyone can communicate with each other. But the variation makes complete sense, it’s the same as with spoken languages. They’ve all evolved to become what they are, they haven’t just been invented. But overall people find it to be pretty interesting.

What makes the academic study different from a more practical programme like Sign Language Interpreter?

Linguistics and research. You conduct your own research and that’s been incredibly useful to me. The organisation where I work now has a more practical approach, which means that the research you conduct is immediately useful to people. For example, we develop new products, like courses for parents, that are based on academic insights.

During my studies I conducted a lot of experimental and literature-based research. For my thesis I researched the vocabulary of children that have a cochlear implant. Kids receive a cochlear implant so that they can learn to ‘hear’ certain things. I looked at how their vocabulary compares to kids who can hear. That’s considered experimental research. I also conducted research on the usage of ‘die’ and ‘dat’ in Dutch and Turkish children.

What do you think of when you look back at your university years?

Sign Language Linguistics is a programme in which you know everyone, it’s a really tight-knit group. You often work together as a group, and as a result I’ve made a lot of great friends. I should also add that I didn’t really want to go to Amsterdam, but that I wouldn’t dream of leaving now. I always thought it was a really big city, but it isn’t at all. All of the UvA’s locations are right in the centre, so you get to know the beautiful heart of the city right away.

You often work with children, from what age can you learn sign language?

Before spoken language, actually. It was even a hype for certain parents to communicate with their children in sign before they could speak. For some signs you need certain motor skills, but some children can make signs from a very young age.

What did you learn during your studies that you often use in your work?

Presenting! During the programme we had to do a lot of that, and that’s been an incredible help. I often speak at conferences, and present without hesitation. Additionally, sign language, obviously, and conducting research. Because I am more informed about deaf culture, I have a better sense of what is and isn’t suitable for an audience that doesn’t have that same understanding.

What do you need to be capable of for this programme?

You have to be curious, and enjoy diving in and discovering new things. You have to really like language. Not necessarily in terms of being able to speak another language, but more in terms of language and people as a whole. And you have to be open and flexible about your career prospects. It isn’t a programme where you necessarily study what you will become. It’s much broader.

What advice would you pass on to new students?

Definitely go to Amsterdam and get to know the beautiful inner city and the UvA! The UvA is really approachable and you can find everyone in all the small, historical locations. You constantly run into each and that’s why it doesn’t feel like a big city.