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How To Learn Sign Language

Sign language dictionary for the deaf | Hanelle Fourie | TEDxCapeTown


Translator: Lily María Bello Sánchez
Reviewer: David DeRuwe We have known for some time that dolphins
can communicate with each other, but recent research has shown
that dolphins use clicks and whistles in a very sophisticated way and that they even know
how to take turns in conversation and not to interrupt each other, very much like humans do. So let’s imagine for a moment that we have managed to map
all the dolphin sounds to English words, thereby creating an English
to Dolphinese dictionary. This means that we can
communicate with the dolphins, but essentially we only have
half a dictionary or a one-way dictionary because there is no
“Dolphinese to English” section that would help the dolphins
to communicate with us. This is because we simply
haven’t figured out how to arrange the clicks
and whistles logically, so that they can be looked up. So the dolphins really
cannot use our dictionary at all. If this is a scenario that could
potentially exist in the animal kingdom, what would you say if I told you that this same situation
has existed in our world for years. I would like you to consider
deaf communities and their languages, sign languages, and that, for many years, only one-way
dictionaries have been available to deaf users of sign
language dictionaries. This is because sign languages
have no written form. And in a printed dictionary, signs are usually presented
as pictures or drawings. But because a picture
presents a sign as a whole instead of its individual components and are difficult to arrange
logically or to look up, these dictionaries have typically
been printed word lists with the words arranged
alphabetically on the one side and pictures of the signs next to them. And these dictionaries
have no use whatsoever to anybody who wanted to look up a sign. I am a lexicographer
with a passion for languages. Don’t worry, most people’s reaction to what I do for a living
is: “lexico-what?” But this is an easy one,
and we’re going to figure it out together. “Lexico” refers to lexicon or vocabulary, and the second part of the word is the same as in biographer
or cartographer. In other words, somebody
who writes something. Therefore a lexicographer,
somebody who writes dictionaries. I work for a monolingual
comprehensive dictionary in a South African language
known as Afrikaans, and I love my job. But ever since years ago, as a child, I first saw American
sign language on television, I have been fascinated with the idea of a language that does not
have to be spoken. And eventually, my two
passions came together and led me to learn South African
sign language, or at least start to, and research the lexicography
of sign language, on the other hand. Now, it has to be said
that the electronic era has already brought about a big change
in sign language lexicography, and there are, indeed, excellent
online sign language dictionaries which do make it possible
to look up a sign. And they do this
by breaking down the signs into their individual
components or phonemes. Now, before we get to the idea
that I would like to share with you today, we are going to take one quick step back to make sure that everybody
is on the same page, more or less, about sign languages and see what we think
or what we know about them, and what, perhaps,
we’re not so sure about it. So first of all, there is no
universal sign language. In other words, there’s no
single sign language used by all deaf people
everywhere around the world. Most people are quite
surprised to discover this, and they ask, “Why?” The answer is quite simple: it’s for the same reason
that there is no single spoken language used by all hearing people
everywhere around the world. After all, we’re not
telepathically connected, and languages grow and change and develop
where they are needed and used. Which brings me to the second point: sign languages are, indeed,
natural human languages with their own syntax and grammar. They’re not linked
to any specific spoken language, and they’re so much more
than just spoken language on the hands. Even though English is spoken
in the United States and in Britain, users of American sign language
and British sign language may not necessarily understand each other. So with all of that out of the way, we can get to the idea I would like
to share with you today. It started some years ago,
at the beginning of my research. I visited a primary school
for deaf children, and in particular the foundation phase, which in South Africa
is grades one, two, and three. And I wanted to see what language
support material they had available. At that time, it consisted
of a very basic word list. The words were arranged thematically and presented the target vocabulary
for the various learning areas. But this list, as you can see,
contained no pictures and no signs to help to make a connection
between the word and what it stood for. So it was very plain to see that the children
were not using this list at all, because it offered no help
in remembering what a word means. And I compared it to the beautiful
bilingual foundation phase dictionaries that are available in other languages
and that also include themed searches. In other words, in addition
to the alphabetic section, they have these colorful thematic pages on which words from both languages appear next to a picture
of the concept that they represent. And I asked myself, “Why can’t we do the same
for a sign language dictionary for deaf children
in the foundation phase?” Given how important this phase
is to acquire literacy in the first place. You see, unfortunately,
there is a world-wide lost generation of deaf adults who, on average,
have very low literacy levels and who do not like to read. Therefore, they are extremely
unlikely to use the dictionary in which the main access route is a word. It is, after all, difficult
to look for a word if you’re not sure
how to spell it to begin with. So picture searches can be a great way
of learning and searching for children, but they may also help to alleviate
some of the anxiety or the frustration that all the users may feel when it comes
to using a dictionary for the first time. Here is something else that most of us
have never really thought about, but learning to read relies very heavily
on sounds and phonics, something which deaf children
have no access to. But there has been research that shows that by indicating the finger-spelled
rendition of a word, a bridge may be built between the written form
of the word and the sign. So while hearing children learn songs
like “A is for apple, B is for ball,” a very simplistic example
would be that deaf children may equally benefit from learning
that A is for apple and B is for ball. So with all these things in mind, I decided to research a solution
to address these problems. And the completed theory presents an electronic, fully-bilingual,
sign language dictionary with all content available
side by side in both languages and with the sign language
content in video format. The dictionary is equally accessible
via three ways of searching: namely, the picture search,
a sign search, and a word search. And this means that no literacy
is actually required in either of the dictionary’s
two languages, the written language
or the sign language, to even start using the dictionary. Hanno Schreiber is a computer scientist who completed his honors degree
at Stellenbosch University last year. And together, we have started
to build an online dictionary based on my theory and on a dynamic
database that was developed by him. Although it is currently stalled
at the prototype, it is apparent that the theory works. And it has been acknowledged
by the National Institute for the Deaf. There is a road ahead of us, though, because original content
still need to be developed, which would include artwork as well as definitions
and examples in both languages. And certainly not
with yours truly as the model. (Laughter) The ultimate goal is to make it available
to the deaf community for free. Because the deaf community already faces
so many challenges including financial that it would be unfair to charge them
for access to a resource in a language that is already
so vastly under-resourced. The deaf might not be able to hear, but they can still listen and learn if they have access to the right tools. And it’s actually amazing that the deaf
have achieved so much already with what, in most cases,
has been just half a dictionary. I don’t think life should be so
full of obstacles there. And I believe that the idea
that I shared with you today can be part of the way
as we move forward towards producing accessible
and appropriate sign language resources. I want to challenge you to think of the deaf community
as a linguistic minority, instead of thinking
of deafness as a disability. The deaf simply speak
a different language. And it’s time that we come together
to start working on the right tools so that this “disability” becomes
nothing more than a different “ability.” And then the barriers of communication
can be broken down once and for all. Thank you. (Applause)

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