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Improving communication in the Deaf community

Dr. Brian Cerney an associate professor of American Sign Language at Keuka College who has been working with his daughter Anna, a business major at Keuka College, on training to help improve the accuracy of ASL fingerspelling. He has been with the College since 2010.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in Ohio and was determined to go to college out of state. The University of Rochester captured my attention and was the only school I applied to. I discovered American Sign Language and quickly completed my degree (in English) so that I could pursue a Masters in Linguistics at Gallaudet University.

Tell us a little about your professional experience.

I have worked as an ASL/English interpreter since 1988. I became a certified interpreter in 1991 and began teaching in 1993. I have also worked as a College English teacher and on a federally funded grant exploring Deaf education. All of these experiences have given me a depth and breadth in ASL, the Deaf Community, and the interpreting process.

What is the title of your research project?

Receptive Fingerspelling.

When and where did this research take place?

From 1993 to the present at the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh and Keuka College.

What sparked the idea?

One of the most common complaints from professional interpreters is that they struggle with reading fingerspelling accurately. I took on this challenge when I was coordinating the interpreting program at the Community College of Allegheny County by creating a curriculum of intensive training. The training focuses on the patterns in the production of fingerspelling: noting whether each of the fingers is fully extended, partially extended, or closed against the palm; and noting the palm orientation. These details are often overlooked because students of signed languages tend to be taught how to make the hand shape rather than how to perceive it. In other words, there is a large amount of information that sign language students have essentially been taught to ignore. My training helps them to notice these details.

What did the research involve?

The first step is to recognize that there are far more than 26 hand configurations in fingerspelling. This is due to phonological assimilation -- the natural changes and modifications to language based on smoothing things out so that they are not hard to produce. An example in spoken English is the sentence "Did you eat yet?" often being pronounced something like "Jeet chet?" Fingerspelling has at least 63 regularly produced variations for all 26 letters. The training starts by exploring the most visible elements of hand shapes -- the extended fingers -- then dives deeper into the patterns based on each finger, thumb and palm orientation. After about four hours of training, students are significantly improved in their accuracy of perception.

Did you work with anyone on this research?

I created the initial training on my own with occasional input from students and professional peers. When I was preparing the training for a national conference, which took place in the summer of 2017, I reviewed everything with my daughter, Anna.

How did Anna contribute to the research?

Anna was born in Russia and we adopted her when she was six. She had some basic Russian and Russian Sign Language skills. As it happens, Russian fingerspelling has multiple differences from ASL fingerspelling -- mostly because it represents the Cyrillic alphabet, which has different letters. Now that Anna is an adult with several years of experience in teaching ASL herself, it seemed logical for me to review the training I had developed and get her insight and suggestions. (Anna is currently a Business major at Keuka College and enjoys helping the ASL and AEI students with their ASL fluency and interpreting skills.)

What revisions did you make as the research progressed?

Anna and I streamlined some of the training and made the practice sessions significantly more relevant to each element of hand shapes being taught (fingers, thumb, palm orientation). We then went to Salt Lake City to provide the training three times to three different groups. After the first training session, we quickly made some improvements (with only one hour to prepare). After the third session, we realized that we needed to rethink a few aspects of how the workshop was structured and the specific features being analyzed. We were able to submit revised handouts to the conference and look forward to our next opportunities to teach the new and improved version.

Where can the research be seen?

The only publication at this point is handouts and a PowerPoint. Due to the recent revisions, it is likely that this will lead to a professional journal publication.

How did the project affect your teaching and/or impact students?

I have already used this training with Keuka College students for the past several years. With the streamlining and the new and improved version, I look forward to teaching it to our new juniors in the interpreting program.

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