On the 13th of November UCL’s Deafness and Cognition Language Research Centre (DCAL) celebrated its 10th anniversary. In ten years DCAL has had a profound effect on a number of areas, from Clinical Psychology to Education. One of the most exciting projects from a linguist’s perspective is probably their British Sign Language (BSL) Corpus Project. Before 2008 there was no large accessible collection of BSL signing. DCAL decided to address this gap and set out to collect signing data from Deaf participants from different areas of the UK. Ultimately signing data was collected from 249 Deaf people in 8 cities (London, Bristol, Birmingham Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast). Within these signers there were also different genders, ages, ethnic groups and occupations represented. Participants were interviewed, held conversations with other signers and were asked to provide their preferred sign for 102 different concepts (e.g. ‘America’ or ‘dog’). This gave DCAL a wealth of signing data unlike anything ever collected on BSL before.


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So, why is this important?

  1. The project makes this data accessible to the general public. This means that signers, learners of BSL and linguists (including you!) can all look at videos of signing for any purpose.
  2. The corpus acts as a BSL time capsule. DCAL has shown that language change is happening very quickly in BSL and by having the BSL Corpus it is possible to keep a record of what BSL looks like now.
  3. Linguists can study the corpus to get a better understanding of the structure of BSL. This, in turn, influences the teaching of BSL and the training of interpreters.
  4. The corpus records the regional variety of BSL as well as the differences across age groups and genders. This is of particular interest to sociologists and sociolinguists. How would we have known before the corpus that there were at least 17 variations of the the sign PURPLE?
  5. Other countries have been spurred on to create sign language corpora and this may allow future comparison between different sign languages.
  6. In the future, DCAL will make the corpus completely searchable like the corpora of written or spoken language. Once it is machine readable it will be open to further research by computational linguists and may be more easily compared with corpora from spoken languages.
  7. The BSL Corpus Project has been used to produce a free online dictionary of BSL based on the signs provided by corpus participants. This is an invaluable tool for learners of BSL and contains over 2,500 signs from the different regions of the UK.

If you are interested in finding out more about the BSL Corpus, visit their website. You can also hear Dr Adam Schembri talking about the project 5 years ago on UCL’s Mini-lecture series here.