Ursula Bellugi, a pioneer in the world of sign language, died at the age of 91

Ursula Bellugi, a pioneer in the study of the biological foundations of language and one of the first to demonstrate that sign language was as complex, abstract and systematic as spoken language, died Sunday in San Diego. she was 91 years old

His death, in an assisted living facility, was confirmed by his son Rob Klima.

Dr. Bellugi was a leading researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego for nearly five decades and, for much of the time, was director of its cognitive neuroscience laboratory. He has made significant contributions in three main areas: language development in children; the linguistic structure and neurological basis of American Sign Language; and the social behavior and language skills of people with a rare genetic disorder, Williams syndrome.

“It leaves an indelible legacy of shedding light on how humans communicate and socialize with each other,” Rusty Gage, president of the Salk Institute, said in a statement.

dr Bellugi’s work, carried out largely in collaboration with her husband, Edward S. Climateadvanced understanding of the brain and the origins of language, both signs and speech.

American Sign Language was first described as a true language in the 1960s from William C. Stokoe Jr., professor at Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts university in the world dedicated to the deaf. But he was ridiculed and attacked for that claim.

Dr. Bellugi and Dr. Klima, who died in 2008, proved conclusively that the sign languages ​​of the world – of which there are more than 100 – were real languages ​​in their own right, not just translations of spoken languages.

Dr Bellugi, who focused on American Sign Language, established that these language systems were handed down, in all their complexity, from one generation of the deaf to another. For this reason, the scientific community considers her the founder of American sign language neurobiology.

The couple’s work led to an important discovery at the Salk lab: that the left hemisphere of the brain has an innate predisposition for language, both spoken and signed. This discovery has provided scientists with a new insight into how the brain learns, interprets and forgets language.

“This was a fundamental discovery for deaf people, as it verified that our language is treated the same by the brain, just as we need to be treated the same by society,” Roberta J. Cordano, president, said in a statement. by Gallaudet.

Until then, sign languages ​​were viewed contemptuously either as crude pantomime, with no rules, or as broken English, and deaf children were discouraged from learning to sign. The couple’s work contributed to a wider acceptance of ASL as a language of instruction and helped empower deaf people during the development of the Deaf Pride movement in the 1980s.

Another argument that Dr. Bellugi and her husband studied Williams syndrome. She sought to understand how the disorder, in which a set of about 20 genes are missing from one copy of a chromosome, changed the brain and ultimately shaped behavior.

His body of work, the Salk Institute said in a profile by Dr. Bellugi, “has helped paint a picture of the biology that humans use to interact with the world around us.”

Ursula Herzberger was born on February 21, 1931 in Jena, central Germany, a center of science and technology. With Hitler on the rise, her family fled Germany in 1934 and she eventually settled in Rochester, NY. There, her father, Max Herzberger, mathematician and physicist, he became head of Eastman Kodak’s optical research laboratories, a job organized for him by Albert Einstein, his friend and former teacher in Berlin.

Mr. Herzberger went on to develop a special lens that resolved the color distortion in the glass. Ursula’s mother, Edith (Kaufmann) Herzberger, was an artist.

Ursula attended Antioch College in Ohio, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and graduated in 1952. She got married Piero Bellugi, Italian composer and conductor, in 1953; they had two children before they split in 1959.

Interested in psychology and language, she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she became a research assistant Roger Brown, a prominent psychologist at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was studying how children acquire language. She soon studied at Harvard, where she earned a doctorate in education in 1967 while raising her children from a single mother. He also took courses at MIT, where one of his teachers was Dr. Clima.

When they got married, she legally changed her name to Bellugi-Klima but continued to use Bellugi professionally. They moved west when she started teaching at the University of California, San Diego. She started in 1968 at the Salk Institute, a 10-minute walk from her husband’s campus, where she also taught. She later taught at San Diego State University.

At the time, San Diego was a hotbed of linguistic research, which revolved primarily around Dr. Bellugi and Dr. Klima, as well as colleagues from Harvard and MIT, has attracted a parade of research assistants and is committed to hiring many deaf people.

Over the years, Dr. Bellugi has received numerous awards. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2007. She retired from Salk in 2017 at age 86.

She has co-written hundreds of articles and several books, some of them with her husband. Their best known book was “The Signs of Language” (1979), written with 10 contributors. It was the first comprehensive study of the grammar and psychology of sign languages ​​and was hailed by the Association of American Publishers as the “Most Outstanding Behavioral Science Book” of the year.

In addition to his son Rob, Dr. Bellugi leaves his sister, Ruth Rosenberg; his brother, Hans Herzberger; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Another son, David Bellugi, died in 2017.

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