British Sign Language - on the record

Sign language7 May 2012

By Pamela Readhead

Imagine a computer that could translate sign language conversations into English text or vice versa. This may be 20 years away, but thanks to the work of researchers at the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL), it is no longer a pipe dream.

British Sign Language (BSL) is the first or preferred language of around 70,000 people in the UK, including many of those who were born profoundly deaf. The ESRC-funded British Sign Language Corpus Project (a computerised collection of language recordings) at University College London has collected video recordings of conversations, interviews, narratives, and signs for 102 key concepts and made them available to everyone online. This unique collection is the first recorded 'corpus' of BSL and is expected to lead to improved services for deaf people.

The researchers filmed 249 deaf people in eight cities across the UK. They found that there were many regional variations in signing, with 22 different signs for the colour purple and variations in signs for other colours, numbers and country names.

"BSL is a rich language but variations are starting to level off, especially among young signers. This is partly due to increased mobility and new technologies such as YouTube and Skype, and partly because of changes in deaf education which mean that most deaf children are now going to mainstream schools instead of deaf schools where much of the variation originated," says Dr Kearsy Cormier, senior researcher at DCAL, based at University College London.

"The Corpus provides a formal record of signing as it is today. This information will be a tremendous resource for future research as well as for students and teachers of BSL and to sign language interpreting across the country. These advances will enable deaf people to participate more fully in society."

The collection of video recordings shows deaf men and women of different ages and background conversing in BSL with each other in pairs. They answer questions, tell stories, and show their signs for 102 key concepts.

Kearsy Cormier explains: "This data going online is the culmination of years of hard work by researchers and members of the deaf community. We are very pleased that the BSL corpus video data are now freely available worldwide; this was one of the main aims of the project.

"But the work is by no means completed. In the future, annotations and translations of the data will be made available online to bring this resource closer to what we mean by a 'corpus' today in linguistic research. These annotations will allow anyone to quickly search for specific signs, and facilitate peer reviews of claims about BSL structure and use amongst researchers."

The database which contains the different sign variants produced as part of the BSL Corpus Project is now being used by DCAL to produce an online dictionary and reference grammar for BSL. This will be the first online dictionary to be based on a large corpus for any sign language. Work on this unique reference tool for research and teaching/learning of BSL should be completed by 2015.

A piece about the BSL Corpus Project was recently shown on The Hub, a television show produced by the British Sign Learning Broadcasting Trust, and is available on Community TV and online. Created by a deaf team, embedded within the community, the programme invites its viewers to contribute their own footage, stories and views.

Deaf Awareness Week runs from Monday 7 May to Sunday 13 May.