Dr Adam Schembri BA, DipEd, M.Litt, PhD

Photograph of Dr Adam Schembri

Department of English Language and Linguistics
Reader in Linguistics

Contact details

Frankland Building
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

I am a Reader in Linguistics in the Department of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Birmingham.  I teach modules on sociolinguistics, language and gesture, and linguistic diversity. My research focuses on the linguistics of sign languages, especially Australian Sign Language (Auslan) and British Sign Language (BSL).


  • Bachelor of Arts (English Literature), University of Sydney, 1988
  • Diploma in Education (English/English as a Second Language), Sydney College of Advanced Education, 1989
  • Master of Letters (Linguistics), University of Sydney, 1992
  • Diploma in Interpreting (Australian Sign Language/English), Sydney Institute of Technical and Further Education, 1996
  • PhD (Linguistics), University of Sydney. Title: “Issues in the analysis of polycomponential verbs in Australian Sign Language (Auslan)”, 2002


I began working at the University of Birmingham in January 2016. Prior to that, I was associate professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne (Australia) during 2011-2015, and Senior Research Fellow at the Deafness Cognition and Language (DCAL) Research Centre at University College London during 2006-2010. I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Newcastle and Macquarie University (both in Sydney, Australia) during 2003-2006.


I teach on the BA and MA programmes on the following modules: Sociolinguistics, Language and Gesture and Exploring Linguistic Diversity. 

Postgraduate supervision

I am currently working with PhD students working on size and shape specifier signs in Russian Sign Language (Maria Kyuseva), on issues in interpretation between African-American Vernacular English and American Sign Language (Sharon Hill) and on co-speech gestures in Polish/English bilinguals (Paulina Poplawksa). I also have a masters student studying mouthing in Greek Sign Language (Ioanna Tsourma).

I am primarily interested in supervising students with an interest in sign language linguistics, gesture studies, as well as sociolinguistic variation and change in both spoken and signed languages.

Find out more - our PhD English Language and Applied Linguistics  page has information about doctoral research at the University of Birmingham.


I am interested in research investigating sign languages and gesture.  I am currently working on an Australian Research Council Linkage Project with Louisa Willoughby (Monash University) and Ramas McCrae (Melbourne Polytechnic) investigating individual differences in second language learners of Australian Sign Language (Auslan).  I am also conducting on-going research on a range of topics (e.g., the lexicon, grammar and variation and change in British Sign Language) with colleagues Kearsy Cormier, Gab Hodge and Max Barber (University College London) as well as Jordan Fenlon (Heriot-Watt University) using data from the BSL Corpus Project (www.bslcorpusproject.org). I also continue to collaborate with Trevor Johnston in Sydney, Australia, on research using the Auslan Corpus.

Other activities



  • Schembri, A. & Lucas, C. (Eds.), (2015). Sociolinguistics and Deaf communities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Johnston, T. & Schembri, A. (2007). Australian Sign Language (Auslan): An introduction to sign language linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Peer-reviewed chapters/articles

  • Schembri, A., Cormier, K., & Fenlon, J. (2018). Indicating verbs as typologically unique constructions: Reconsidering verb ‘agreement’ in sign languages. Glossa3(1), 89. DOI: doi.org/10.5334/gjgl.468
  • Fenlon, J., Schembri, A. & Cormier, K. (2018) Modification of indicating verbs in British Sign Language: A corpus-based study. Language, 94 (1 ), 84-118.  DOI: doi:10.1353/lan.2018.0002
  • Schembri, A., Fenlon, J., Cormier, K. & Johnston, T. (2018) Sociolinguistic typology and sign languages. Frontiers in Psychology 9:200. DOI: doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00200
  • Schembri, A., Stamp, R., Fenlon, J. & Cormier, K. (2018) Variation and change in varieties of British Sign Language in England. In: N. Braber & S. Jansen (Eds.), Sociolinguistics in England. Palgrave Macmillian.
  • Stamp, R., Schembri, A., Evans, B. & Cormier, K. (2016). British Sign Language (BSL) regional varieties in contact: Investigating the patterns of accommodation and language change. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 21(1): 70-82.
  • Cormier, K., Fenlon, J. & Schembri, A. (2015). Indicating verbs in British Sign Language favour use of motivated space. Open Linguistics 1: 684-707.
  • Fenlon, J., Cormier, K. & Schembri, A. (2015). Building BSL SignBank: The lemma dilemma revisited. International Journal of Lexicography 28(2): 169-206.
  • Bayley, R., Lucas, C. & Schembri, A. (2015). Variation and change in sign languages. In Schembri, A. & Lucas, C. (Eds.), Sociolinguistics and Deaf communities (pp. 61-94). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Johnston, T., Cresdee, D., Schembri, A. & Woll, B. (2015) FINISH variation and grammaticalization in a signed language: How far down this well-trodden pathway is Auslan (Australian Sign Language)? Language Variation and Change 27(1).
  • Johnston, T., van Roekel, J. & Schembri, A. (2015) On the conventionalization of mouth actions in Auslan (Australian Sign Language). Language and Speech 58(1).
  • Stamp, R., Schembri, A., Fenlon, J. & Rentelis, R. (2015). Variation and change in British Sign Language number signs. Sign Language Studies, 15 (2).
  • Fenlon, J., Schembri, A., Johnston, T. & Cormier, K. (2015). Documentary and corpus approaches to sign language research. In: E. Orfanidou, B. Woll & G. Morgan (Eds.), The Blackwell Guide to Research Methods in Sign Language Studies (pp. 156-172). Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Green, J., Kelly, B. & Schembri, A. (2014). Finding common ground: Sign language and gesture research in Australia. Australian Journal of Linguistics 34(2).
  • Stamp, R., Schembri, A., Fenlon, J. & Rentelis, R., Woll, B. & Cormier, K. (2014). Lexical variation and change in British Sign Language. PLoS ONE 9(4): e94053. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094053.
  • Fenlon, J., Schembri, A., Rentelis, R., Vinson, D. & Cormier, K. (2014). Using conversational data to determine lexical frequency in British Sign Language: The influence of text type. Lingua 143, 187-202.
  • Cormier, K., Schembri, A., & Woll, B. (2013). Pronouns and pointing: where do sign languages fit? Lingua 137, 230-247.
  • Schembri, A., Fenlon, F., Rentelis, R., Reynolds, S. & Cormier, K. (2013). Building the British Sign Language Corpus. Language Documentation and Conservation 7, 136-154.
  • Fenlon, J., Schembri, A., Rentelis, R., & Cormier, K. (2013). Variation in handshape and orientation in British Sign Language: The case of the ‘1’ hand configuration. Language and Communication 33(1), 69-91.
  • Schembri, A. & Johnston, T. (2013). Sociolinguistic variation and change in sign languages. In: R. Bayley, R. Cameron & C. Lucas (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Sociolinguistics (pp. 503-524). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Johnston, T. & Schembri, A. (2013). Corpus analysis of sign languages. In: C.A. Chapelle (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics (pp. 479-501). Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Schembri, A. & Johnston, T. (2012). Sociolinguistic aspects of variation and change. In: R. Pfau, M. Steinbach & B. Woll (Eds.), Sign Language: An International Handbook (pp. 788-816). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
  • Cormier, K., Schembri, A., Vinson, D., & Orfanidou, E. (2012). First language acquisition differs from second language acquisition in prelingually deaf signers: Evidence from the grammatical processing of British Sign Language. Cognition 124(1); 50-65.
  • McKee, R., Schembri, A., McKee, D., & Johnston, T. (2011). Variable subject expression in Australian Sign Language and New Zealand Sign Language. Language Variation and Change 23(3), 1-24.
  • Lewin, D. & Schembri, A. (2011). Mouth gestures in British Sign Language (BSL): A case study of tongue protrusion in BSL narratives. Sign Language & Linguistics 14(1), 94-114.
  • Comrier, K., Schembri, A. & Woll, B. (2010). Diversity across sign languages and spoken languages–Implications for language universals (A response to Evans & Levinson). Lingua 120 (12), 2664-2667.
  • Schembri, A. (2010). Documenting sign languages. In: Austin, P. (Ed.) Language Documentation and Description Volume 7: Lectures in Language Documentation and Description (pp. 105-143). London: School of African and Oriental Studies.
  • Schembri, A., Cormier, K., Johnston, T., McKee, D., McKee, R., & Woll, B. (2010). Sociolinguistic variation in British, Australian and New Zealand sign languages. In: Brentari, D. (Ed.), Sign languages (pp. 479-501). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Johnston, T. & Schembri, A. (2010). Variation, lexicalization and grammaticalization in signed languages. In: B. Garcia &t M. Derycke (Eds.), Sourds et langue des signs: Normes et variation. Langage et société 131, 5-17.
  • De Beuzeville, L., Johnston, T. & Schembri, A. (2009). The use of space with indicating verbs in Australian Sign Language: A corpus-based investigation. Sign Language & Linguistics 12(1), 53-82.
  • Schembri, A., McKee, D., McKee, R., Johnston, T., Goswell, D. & Pivac, S. (2009). Phonological variation and change in Australian and New Zealand Sign Languages: The location variable. Language Variation and Change 21(2), 193-231.
  • Vinson, D. P., Cormier, K., Denmark, T., Schembri, A. & Vigliocco, G. (2008). The British Sign Language norms for acquisition, familiarity and iconicity. Behaviour Research Methods 40(4), 1079-1087.
  • Cormier, K., Schembri, A. & Tyrone, M. (2008). One hand or two?: A crosslinguistic analysis of the non-native lexicon in signed languages. Sign Language & Linguistics 11(1), 3-44.
  • Johnston, T., Vermeerbergen, M., Schembri, A. & Leeson, L. (2007). ‘Real data are messy’: Considering the cross-linguistic analysis of constituent ordering in Australian Sign Language (Auslan), Vlaamse Gebarentaal (VGT) and Irish Sign Language (ISL). In: Perniss, P., Pfau, R. & Steinbach, M. (Eds.), Visible variation: Comparative studies on sign language structure (pp. 163-206). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Schembri, A. & Johnston, T. (2007). Sociolinguistic variation in the use of fingerspelling in Australian Sign Language: A pilot study. Sign Language Studies 7:3, 319-347.
  • Johnston, T. & Schembri, A. (2006). Issues in the creation of a digital archive of a signed language. In: Barwick, L. & Thieberger, N. (Eds.), Sustainable data from digital fieldwork. (pp. 7-16). Sydney: University of Sydney Press.
  • Schembri, A., Johnston, T. & Goswell, D. (2006). NAME dropping: Location variation in Australian Sign Language. In: Lucas, C. (Ed.), Multilingualism and sign languages: From the Great Plains to Australia.(pp. 121-156). Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press.
  • Schembri, A., Jones, C., & Burnham, D. (2005). Comparing action gestures and classifier verbs of motion: Evidence from Australian Sign Language, Taiwan Sign Language, and non-signers’ gestures without speech. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 10:3, 272-290.
  • Schembri, A. (2003). Rethinking “classifiers” in signed languages. In: Emmorey, K. (Ed.). Perspectives on classifier constructions in sign languages. (pp.3-34). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Schembri, A., Wigglesworth, G., Johnston, T., Leigh, R., Adam, R. & Barker, R. (2002). Issues in the development of the Test Battery for Australian Sign Language Morphology and Syntax. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 7:1, 18-40.
  • Johnston, T. & Schembri, A. (1999). On defining lexeme in a sign language. Sign Language & Linguistics, 2:2, 115-185.

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