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Language is Healthcare, Says Donna Jo Napoli

headshot of Donna Jo Napoli
Donna Jo Napoli, Ph.D. Photo credit: Swarthmore College Communications Office.

Who holds power in a society?

Consider answers to that question, says AAAS Member and linguist Donna Jo Napoli, and you’ll find that children sit pretty low on the ladder. They may not get to choose what they eat or how they dress, and, if they go to school, they don't get to choose what they learn about.

“But those who can't communicate? They’re at the very bottom of the [ladder],” she says.

Napoli is an award-winning linguist, writer, Professor of Linguistics and Social Justice, and Maurice Eldridge Faculty Fellow at Swarthmore College, where she studies sign languages from around the world and works to protect the language rights of deaf children. For a long time, the scholar studied and analyzed syntax — the way words are arranged into sentences and phrases to create meaningful expressions — of spoken languages like Italian.

But motherhood and a profoundly impactful visit to a school for the deaf transformed her research interests. She became fascinated by literacy, particularly the literacy of deaf children. Napoli began studying and analyzing the structure of sign languages, which she says had been treated for centuries as regrettable, incomplete systems of communication.

Inventor of the telephone Alexander Graham Bell, for example, argued that sign languages were inferior to spoken languages and should be banned at schools for the deaf. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when linguist William Stokoe published research showing that sign languages were just as complex and expressive as spoken languages, that perceptions of signing and deafness truly changed.

“There was a period where, if you were deaf, you were considered perhaps deficient mentally,” says Napoli, who doesn’t consider deafness a disability, but simply a lack of hearing.

“Deaf people can't hear, but that's pretty much the only thing they can't do.”

If you give deaf children accessible language — language they can see and relay to others — their brains develop the same way hearing children’s do, meaning they acquire things like math skills and organizational memory, says Napoli. But depriving deaf children of usable language creates major health issues and can inhibit the development of these cognitive competencies.

“It is a great loss to society, to have an alinguistic, or non-communicating, person,” she says. “A deaf child needs accessible language, and for them, it’s medical care.”

Deaf people who don’t learn to sign have higher morbidity rates, visit emergency rooms more often, and are more likely to be incarcerated for crimes they did not commit, says Napoli. There is growing evidence that a lack of language can lead to poor mental health and slower cognitive development, among other issues.

Improving literacy among deaf children is of critical importance, reiterates Napoli, because reading skills are the biggest correlate to whether children have greater education and employment opportunities later in life. It’s why she became involved in an advocacy team that champions the language rights of deaf children and why she codirects RISE, or Reading Involves Shared Experiences, a project that helps deaf children gain early literacy skills by providing tools to promote shared reading between children and their parents or guardians.

The project, which Napoli oversees in collaboration with Professor Gene Mirus of Gallaudet University — a Washington, D.C., research university that educates the deaf and hard of hearing — has produced more than 100 video-books that are bimodal and bilingual. The video-books feature deaf signers who provide sign language versions of the stories. RISE has also recorded them in 30 different sign languages, and offers all free of charge.

“Learning to read in a language you do not hear is an exceptionally difficult job,” says Napoli. “But we find that deaf children who have a firm foundation in signing are better readers than deaf children who don’t.”

Napoli’s recent work builds on her career-long legacy of improving people’s ability to communicate through her analysis of language. She was formerly a professor at Georgetown University and at the University of Michigan, and is now a Fellow of the Linguistic Society of America, and a recipient of its Mentoring Award, as well as its Linguistics, Language, and the Public Award. Napoli has also authored dozens of children’s books and young adult books that have been translated into nearly 20 languages.

The linguist grew up in Miami, later moving to Boston to complete her undergraduate degree at Harvard University, where she earned a full-ride scholarship to study mathematics. A lover of formulas and numbers, she was passionate about the material and loved the work.

“But in my senior year, a professor of mine said ‘You should really think about linguistics,’” says Napoli, whose aptitude for identifying patterns and constructing models would propel her to success in the study of language. Napoli stayed at Harvard for graduate school, earning a master’s degree in Italian literature and a Ph.D. in general and romance linguistics before spending a postdoctoral year in linguistics at MIT.

The advocate for the deaf says she joined AAAS with the goal of promoting the work of deaf linguists in mind. In 2021, she did just that by organizing the first AAAS-hosted symposium with all deaf presenters and a deaf moderator – a symposium equally accessible to deaf and hearing.

For this year’s AAAS Annual Meeting, Empower with Evidence, Napoli again put together a session featuring presentations from deaf scholars who work in the field of linguistics. She says promoting the work of deaf professionals is essential. So is paying attention to their contributions and making space for the deaf in learning environments.

“I think these [symposiums and sessions] are models for what should happen in scientific organizations around the world because deafness impacts health,” says Napoli. “Neuroscientists, psychologists, linguists, and developmental scientists, they all should be benefiting from the knowledge and wisdom of deaf scholars.