Just in time? The importance of creating sign language archives

Onno Crasborn, Inge Zwitserlood

Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands, The


Sociolinguistic studies of sign language variation were among the first using large sets of data (corpora) including many different signers (Lucas et al. 1998 on ASL, Johnston & Schembri 2006 for Auslan). A similar corpus is currently being compiled in the Netherlands for NGT (Sign Language of the Netherlands). The project aims to record over 75 hours of monologues and dialogues of Deaf native signers, which will receive a voice-over interpretation into Dutch. A subset of the data will receive a gloss annotation. A key difference with previous corpora is that the Corpus NGT will be published online with unlimited access. The open access publication of the corpus is in line with the broader trend within the humanities to share data online (cf. the ECHO initiative, Creative Commons licenses, and the Berlin Declaration). We discuss four important avenues opened by this publication.

First of all, the recording of utterances by a substantial number of NGT signers comes at a particularly crucial time given the expected rapid changes in the Deaf community. Only very few native signers will be growing up in the coming decades due to the rise of medical technologies such as cochlear implants. In the coming decades, we expect to see an increased use of signs by hard-of-hearing people using Dutch as their primary language, and an increased use of code mixing between Dutch and NGT. The study of such communication forms will only be possible with reference to NGT as one of its sources. The corpus will therefore act as a reference point for studies of NGT and other forms of visual communication.

Secondly, from the scientific point of view, studies of NGT have been restricted to a few signers per study and variation has in general been neglected. This corpus, however, encourages studies on variation by including data from men and women of different age groups from all regions,

Thirdly, the corpus will form a much-needed resource for second language learners of NGT. As the size of this group is estimated to be much larger than the number of native signers, adequate resources for learning sign language are needed. At present, little is available beyond the scant course materials: there is no TV channel broadcasting in NGT, and the number of commercially available DVDs is highly limited and often targeted at (young) children.

Last but not least, the corpus may start to function in a similar way as text documents within the Deaf community, lacking a writing system.

With its publication in April 2008, we offer a basic version of the corpus that will be of interest to linguists, sociologists and anthropologists. One of the promising developments in the near future is that users can add linguistic and other annotations following a wiki-type model. As the movies are also available for the general public, we hope that dedicated web sites will be created using selected clips to educate Deaf children, their parents, interpreters, or other people learning NGT or studying Deaf culture.

Session: Paper session
Sign Langages Archives / History
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 09