Here is a funny video with Adam Hills, a comedian, about the funny side of a couple of BSL signs. It is a nice illustration of ambiguity, iconicity, distinctiveness and of how people can play with signs, gestures and language.
Category: Sign Language Page 1 of 2
Edward S. Klima was a linguist who, together with his wife Ursula Bellugi, wrote ‘The Signs of Language‘ (1979). He was one of the first scholars to pay serious attention to sign languages, ASL grammar in particular, and helped to get them recognized as proper languages. He died on Sept. 25 in the La Jolla section of San Diego, at age 77.
Her is his obituary by the NY Times.
I never met Edward Klima, but I greatly enjoyed reading The Signs of Language, which, I think, presaged much of what has been done in sign language research since.
A demo describing the MobileASL research project
The group of MobileASL researchers at the University of Washington features in a local news bulletin. They have been working for a few years now on efficient transmitting of ASL video over a channel with limited bandwidth. The idea is to enable mobile videophony, which has been the holy grail of mobile applications for quite some time already.
Personally, I am not convinced that specific technology for the transmission of sign language video will really have an impact. Here are a few reasons. Bandwidth will increase anyway with costs going down. Processing capacity in phones will increase. Videophony is an application that is desirable for many, not just signers. In other words, there is already a drive towards videophony that will meet the requirements for signing. Furthermore, I am not sure which requirements are specifically posed by sign language. People talk and gesture too, and I imagine they would want that to come across in the videophony as well. Finally, signers can and do adjust their signing to for example webcams. Does the technology address a real problem?
“The team tried different ways to get comprehensible sign language on low-resolution video. They discovered that the most important part of the image to transmit in high resolution is around the face. This is not surprising, since eye-tracking studies have already shown that people spend the most time looking at a person’s face while they are signing.”
Would this not be true for any conversation between people?
On the positive side: perhaps this initiative for signers will pay off for everyone. It wouldn’t be the first time that designs for people with specific challenges actually addressed problems everyone had to some degree.
America, as usual, appears to have unique powers of division. In this case America is divided into Deaf America and deaf America, into oralists and manualists (?), into those who respect Alexander Graham Bell and those who reject and denounce his legacy. Bell, whose wife and mother were deaf, devoted much of his life to improve the teaching of speech to deaf and hard of hearing children. As such, he was hardly a champion of sign language, see the following excerpt from Through Deaf Eyes:
In 1884, Bell published a paper “Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race,” in which he warned of a “great calamity” facing the nation: deaf people were forming clubs, socializing with one another and, consequently, marrying other deaf people. The creation of a “deaf race” that yearly would grow larger and more insular was underway. Bell noted that “a special language adapted for the use of such a race” already was in existence, “a language as different from English as French or German or Russian.” Some eugenicists called for legislation outlawing intermarriage by deaf people, but Bell rejected such a ban as impractical. Instead he proposed the following steps: “(1) Determine the causes that promote intermarriages among the deaf and dumb; and (2) remove them. The causes he sought to remove were sign language, deaf teachers, and residential schools. His solution was the creation of special day schools taught by hearing teachers who would enforce a ban on sign language.
It is hard to imagine a more ruthless approach to the ‘problem’ of a more or less isolated American Deaf subculture. Let me just state my position clearly:
I would have been against it. No. Lucky for me I am Dutch and not American and therefore I do not feel called upon to state my position. I feel free to rise above the divide. Oralism existed here too, but I dare say it was less extreme, and the opposition was therefore less extreme too. Needless to say, the advocates of (also) using sign language are on top at the moment and oralism in its extreme form has all but vanished. Within this context, the following video was recently put online. It is a good illustration of the strong emotions felt by the victims of oralism.
Source: Daveynin: “Scene parody plot: Hilter is angry; his final defeat against sign language has now pushed him over the edge.”
Here is a nice master’s thesis by Chantal Mülders called ‘Can I Learn How to Sign: Exploring aptitude for spoken language and visual stimuli in connection with sign language’. (Master of Arts, Radboud University Nijmegen, 2007). Usually these theses aren’t published but since there is so little published on Sign Language of the Netherlands (SLN) I offered her to publish it here.
Summary: This thesis explores the relationship between linguistic and visual aptitude and sign language learning to see what abilities are necessary for sign language acquisition and whether these differ from spoken language acquisition. 29 Students enrolled in a Sign Language minor took four tests before the start of their practical sign language course: a Sound Discrimination test, a Sign Language test, a Shape Discrimination test and a Visual Spatial Discrimination test. The Sign Language test was constructed for this thesis and focused on phonological and phonetic alterations of handshape. The other tests originated from aptitude test batteries. After seven weeks of sign language instruction, the students took a proficiency test that tested their receptive and productive sign language skills. This proficiency test was constructed by the sign language teacher and was the student’s final exam for the course. 18 Students remained who had taken all five tests. Correlations between the four tests and the proficiency test show that the Sign Language test has a decent, but insignificant correlation with Reception. The Sound Discrimination test did not show a relationship and the Shape Discrimination test had a steady, but low and insignificant relationship. The Visual Spatial Discrimination test correlated negatively with Reception. This was the only significant correlation between the four tests and the proficiency test. It is likely that the subject group was not varied enough and all subjects performed above a certain critical level.
I conclude that sign language learning appears to require different abilities from spoken language acquisition, but the current subject group is too small for a definite answer.
Victoria Nyst defended her PhD thesis titled ‘A Descriptive Analysis of Adamorobe Sign Language (Ghana)’ at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) two weeks ago (March 30). The local university website wrote a short piece about this Unique sign language in African village with high hereditary deafness.
One claim is that AdaSL is highly iconic; can you guess this sign? (source)
The village Adamorobe has a high incidence of hereditary deafness so there is a local sign language that both deaf and hearing villagers use. In the summaries there are some speculative claims about the different ways a sign language can develop or has developed in this case. Whether or not there is a large and isolated Deaf community is suggested to be the main factor in the arguments.
There is a crazy story evolving about a deaf man, by the name of Shaun Phuprate, who landed in jail for gesturing ‘fuck you’ at the police. But did he really?
Sunderland Echo: Signing row lands deaf man in court. “A DEAF man arrested after police mistook sign language for an obscene gesture has lost his court battle for compensation. Shaun Phuprate, of Town End Farm, was handcuffed and hauled before magistrates for making a two-finger salute at officers in Sunderland. The now 26-year-old insisted he was making the sign for “I am deaf” and had not been rude.” There is also a BSL video translation from SignPost
The ‘palm-back v-sign’ (source Morris, 1979; the finger)
The policemen believed they saw a ‘Palm-back v-sign’, which is a cockney variant of giving the finger. As such it constituted an insult and, together with other misconduct, enough to land Phuprate (and his brother) in jail for the night. Initially when the case came before court in 2002 the defense claimed Phuprate was merely signing ‘I am Deaf’, which the judge accepted.
Phuprate signing (BSL) ‘Iam deaf’ ? (source)
Afterwards, the brothers Phuprate launched a wrongful arrest claim, but recently jurors at Newcastle County Court found it was “more probable than not” officers believed Shaun had made an obscene hand gesture (and mouthed an insult and was drunk). Therefore the arrest was not wrongful. Nice to see how the policemen’s perception of insults is what matters in court. I am quite convinced that officers are human beings like most others, and I am also quite convinced that human beings can be oversensitive to insulting gestures. But I think we may well have another case of someone trying to pretend his insulting gesture was an innocent movement. The two gestures seem too far apart for a mix-up in the first place.
Strangely enough, in the initial hearing it was also stated that “[Phuprate] cannot possibly have understood any caution that was given or the reasons for his arrest”. Just because he was deaf he cannot understand anything? And elsewhere it says that Shaun could not have sworn since he was born deaf and ‘without speech’. As if oral education of the deaf never existed?
In this case I believe the cops can probably be trusted to have made the proper decisions about what they saw or chose to see. But unless you were there, we will never know what Phuprate really did. Ps. It appears that UK courts are more sensitive to people insulting cops than Dutch courts.
I came across a bundle of websites that is like a city full of British Sign Language (BSL). And it all seems to come from the University of Bristol, Centre for Deaf Studies (CDS). They managed to create a great signing experience in their site, in just about every page you care to look at. If you are thinking about using (video’s of) sign language on your website, you simply must check these out:
Deafresource: To find out about the Deaf community sign language and Deaf studies.
Deafstation: News and information service for BSL users. Deafstation provides a daily news programme in BSL.
Signstation: Learn about British Sign Language (BSL)? Signstation has video, interactive exercises, pictures, graphics and explanations about BSL and Deaf people at work. I would have to check how they did everything, but it is clear that a team of people with good technological skills (flash, shockwave, scripting, streaming video, etc) and good web design skills is working on these sites. They did require me to download and install a more recent shockwave player, but I guess I was due for upgrading and it’s free anyway 🙂
For any community of Deaf people sites like these can be extremely valuable, is my belief. The power of the internet can be put to use to share and enjoy without interference (by the hearing cultural majority or otherwise). But it takes skill to get the websites suited to a primarily signing audience. I think the CDS did a good job here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these sites are already playing a large role in UK Deaf society.
Please put aside any cultural integration reservations for the length of this post and while browsing through the links. I once attended a lecture from one of Bristol’s senior researchers, Paddy Ladd, at the International Conference for the Education of the Deaf in Maastricht, 2005. It was the most memorable event of the entire conference. Mr. Ladd unleashed his anger, frustration and fears on the unsuspecting audience. He was angry about the history of abuse associated to the conference in question (at the first edition in 1880 deaf education was all but limited to oral methods for almost a century). He feared that developments in cochlear implementation would cause doctors and people in deaf education to regress into methods treating deafness as a curable medical condition. And he warned against cultural genocide taking place should sign language teaching suffer, even going so far as comparing the withholding of sign language as primary language from CI kids to child abduction. It was a great speech, arousing much passion and support from Deaf attendees. Next day the British association for the education of the Deaf (or something like that) distanced itself from Paddy Ladd’s views. His speech dominated discussions afterward.
It is not my place to take part in discussions on educational methods or the impact of CI, nor am I an expert judge on the value of Deaf sign language subculture in comparison to a potentially fuller social integration of individuals. But I will say that these websites constitute a fine part of the world wide web. They are examples of how you can make video work on the web. It would be a shame if they were exterminated.
Update 8 Mar ’07: I was so impressed I forgot the news sparking my interest: CDS launched the worlds first sign language dictionary for mobile phones at www.mobilesign.org. Again it is a very well designed service. Two important things: it is simple enough to use with a small screen, and download size of (video) files is fairly small (and thus affordable in pay-per-bit environment like the mobile internet). Unfortunately, prior scientific work on how to reduce bit rates without harming sign language understandability were not applied as far as I can tell:
* Cavender et al. (2005). MobileASL: Intelligibility of Sign Language Video as Constrained by Mobile Phone Technology (pdf); * Parish et al. (1990). Intelligent Temporal Subsampling of American Sign Language Using Event Boundaries (pdf)
* Sperling et al. (1985). Intelligible encoding of ASL image sequences at extremely low information rates. (Might have been used? ACM, DOI). ‘
Update 9 Mar ’07: Tim Tolkt is pretty good at integrating sign video’s (in flash) as well.
I recently read (or glanced through parts) of the 2003 book by Scott K. Liddell: Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language
The main message of the book is one that I would have found trivial if I did not know anything about linguistics. It must take a linguist to surprise a linguist, I guess. Liddell basically points out that there is more to talking than just what is said. I wonder if there are really any structural linguisitic professors out there that would argue against this?
Using many examples he shows how in ASL there are many processes of meaning-making at work. And he suggests that the same is true for spoken languages. When we speak we use words and grammar, but we also use intonation, and we gesture, raise our eyebrows, roll our eyes, etc, etc. Not surprisingly, the same is true for American Sign Language, and undoubtedly for all spoken and signed languages across the globe. When we sign we also gesture, use space in different ways, raise our eyebrows in different flavours, and roll our eyes in all directions. Every language has lexical items (signs and words) and grammatical processes to combine and alter them, but there is always so much more going on when we express ourselves.
Deaf or Hearing?
Liddell is however probably now the first and foremost figure in the Sign Language research community to move to a new agenda. The old (or current) agenda is proving that Sign Language is at a par with spoken/written languages at all levels (such as categorical perception of phonological properties). Alongside runs research showing (dis)similarities in neurological processing between so-called non-linguistic gestures and linguistic gestures (further proof that sign language is like ‘real’ language and not like gesturing).
Signers or Talkers?
When I started reading about sign language and gestures I found it difficult to believe how little interaction there was between research on both topics. Gesture researchers were finding out that gestures and speech are not separated by a fence called ‘linguistic status’, while at the same time Sign Language researchers kept on proving the inferior nature of “gesticulation”. Did they choose to be blind to normal gestures of hearing people? Is there still fear of not being taken seriously? Perhaps there is, and I cannot fathom whether such fear is warranted nor whether ASL status still requires defence beyond reason.
ASL or English?
I heartily recommend Liddell’s book to anyone interested in the similarities between signed and spoken languages and the similarities between sign language and gestures. Rest assured that Liddell provides a score of wonderful material on ASL meaning-making mechanisms, which will clear anyone of the notion that it is a poor or primitive language. The richness he documents is testimony to what matter most: people´s enormous potential to communicate effectively with eachother, through any and all means available.
Two out of four of the above pictures contain people that are ‘signers’, the other are mere ‘talkers and gesturers’. Can you spot them?