British Sign Language – a new corpus project

Excellent news! The Economic and Social Science Research Council of the UK has just awarded a £1 million grant to Adam Schembri for what sounds like important work, The British Sign Language (BSL) Corpus Project: Sociolinguistic variation, language change, language contact and lexical frequency in BSL (2007-2010), which builds on the work he and Trevor Johnston and Louise de Beuzeville and others have been doing on the sign language of the deaf community of Australia, Auslan (e.g. the Auslan corpus project and Adam and Trevor’s recent book. Adam got his PhD in 2002 from the University of Sydney, for a thesis Issues in the analysis of polycomponential verbs in Australian Sign Language (Auslan)).
Adam’s the Principal Investigator – based at University College, London, and other investigators include Bencie Woll, Kearsy Cormier, Frances Elton, Rachel Sutton-Spence (University of Bristol), Graham Turner (Heriot Watt University), Margaret Deuchar (University of Wales Bangor) and Donall O’Baoill (Queens University Belfast). Here’s the project summary.

The aim of this project is to create an innovative corpus (i.e., a computerised collection of language recordings) of British Sign Language (the language of the British deaf community, commonly known as ‘BSL’), and to conduct corpus-based investigations of aspects of the vocabulary, grammar and sociolinguistics of BSL. Data will be collected from at least 240 native and near-native deaf signers of BSL from 8 sites across the United Kingdom. The corpus will be as representative of the language community as possible, including a balance of men and women, deaf adults with deaf parents and those with hearing parents, signers who are young and old, and individuals from working and middle class backgrounds and different ethnic groups.
The first major aim of this project is to create a centralised source of data for ongoing research efforts that aim to understand BSL and sign languages of deaf communities in general. Advances in technology have made it possible for the first time to collect video recordings of sign language data that can be stored digitally, given linguistic annotations and accessed on-line. In the past, the use of analogue video material and the lack of standardised transcription methods did not allow for efficient access to source material when analysing sign language data. Much of the existing BSL data is also archived away in different institutions, is not always adequately covered by participant consent and is not easily accessible. The data collection and annotation for this project will provide the first national web-based and publicly accessible BSL corpus that will become essential for sign language research and teaching in the years to come.
The second major aim of the project is to use the data collected to investigate variation and change in the phonology, vocabulary and grammar of BSL and relate it to social factors, such as a signer’s regional background, age or social class. Sign languages like BSL exist in unique sociolinguistic situations. Only 5-10% of the British deaf community acquire BSL as their first language from signing parents, with the majority of signers learning BSL from deaf peers in schools for deaf children or from friends in early adulthood. As a result of this unusual pattern of language transmission, together with other factors such as the lack of a widely-used writing system or standard variety of BSL used in education and extensive contact with the spoken language of the surrounding community, sign language use in the British deaf community exhibits a great deal of variation. Since the 1980s, the increasing use of BSL on television and in a wider variety of social situations means that the vocabulary (and perhaps the grammar) is undergoing rapid change.
A third aim is to use a subset of 100,000 signs as part of an investigation into the frequency of lexical items in the language (i.e., to find out which signs are the most common in conversation). The greater understanding of lexical frequency as well as variation and change in BSL which will result from this project will lead directly to improved sign language teaching resources that will more accurately describe how the language is used by a range of subgroups within the British deaf community. This will in turn bring about improvements to the training of BSL tutors, sign language interpreters and educators of deaf children. Furthermore, comparative work on another sign language, Australian Sign Language, will be incorporated into the project so that the relationship between these two historically related languages will be better understood. The project also makes further work comparing BSL with American Sign Language and other unrelated sign languages possible, and will lead to an improved understanding of sign languages in general.

2 thoughts on “British Sign Language – a new corpus project”

  1. “Only 5-10% of the British deaf community acquire BSL as their first language from signing parents, with the majority of signers learning BSL from deaf peers in schools for deaf children or from friends in early adulthood.”
    This is an interesting statistic – and one worth researching. An investigation of why people choose to join the Deaf community, and what their linguistic and communication backgrounds have been, in addition to researching a control group that did not join the community would go some way to balancing the depth of research that goes into rehabilitation modes, particularly the cochlear implant, and consider whether the CI is as much a social success as it can be a medical one.

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