Endangered sign languages in village communities

Lead Research Organisation: University of Central Lancashire
Department Name: Int Inst for Sign Lang and Deaf Studies

Abstract

The case of sign languages in rural communities with a high incidence of, often hereditary, deafness is the latest major discovery in the field of sign language linguistics. For the first time, this project looks comparatively at a substantial number of these communities, in Thailand, Mexico (Yucatan Peninsula), South India, Turkey (Mardin), Ghana, Mali (Dogon region), Australia (Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land), Jamaica, Indonesia (Bali) and an Algerian expatriate community in Israel.

The project investigates these sign languages and communities from the two complementary angles of linguistics and anthropology. Our diverse project team, which includes deaf researchers from the target countries, pays particular attention to ethical issues in working with these communities.
 
Description The project "Endangered Sign Languages in Village Communities" (also called "Village Sign") focuses on sign languages in rural communities with a high incidence of hereditary deafness, so-called rural sign languages. From the 1960s, linguists have shown that on all relevant levels of linguistic structure, signed and spoken languages are equivalent. From a primary interest in western sign languages, research shifted in the 1990s to sign languages in urban areas in other parts of the world, such as Japan, Brazil, India, or Jordan. The most recent addition towards a comprehensive typology of sign languages has been the documentation and description of these rural sign languages. The initial studies showed that the societal structures of rural signing communities can differ radically from those of urban deaf communities. The rural signing communities often show special adaptations to deafness. For example, in many communities most of the hearing people use the signed language as well. A particularly interesting result, mirrored by many of our field sites, was the realisation that hearing signers play an important role in language maintenance. While deaf signers may shift to the national sign languages used in government institutions for the deaf, hearing signers only sign with their deaf community members in their homes, and thus conserve the need for the local sign language. The Village Sign project was the first comprehensive project to systematically combine anthropological, sociolinguistic and linguistic perspectives to gain insights into these rural signing varieties. Some of the highlights of the project are summarised in an edited volume: Zeshan, U., & De Vos, C., eds. (2012). Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and linguistic insights. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton and Nijmegen: Ishara Press.



The Village Sign project was a large consortium project led by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) with partners in Germany, the US, Israel, and the Netherlands. The partnership included research on ten different field sites in Mexico, Jamaica, Mali, Ghana, Israel, Turkey, India, Indonesia, and Australia. UCLan was directly responsible for field sites in India (Alipur Sign Language), Turkey (Mardin Sign Language), Israel (Algerian Jewish Sign Language), Indonesia (Kata Kolok) and Mexico (Chican Sign Language). At each field site, the team filmed a variety of sign language data, including spontaneous conversation and structured language games developed at UCLan that prompted signers to talk about the domains of colour, number, and kinship. The latter data were analysed using linguistic questionnaires developed at UCLan that were made accessible to deaf scholars through translation into International Sign, and to non-linguist sign language users by simplifying and shortening them. Each of these data sets was archived digitally, either within the Village Sign Corpus hosted by the International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies (iSLanDS) at the University of Central Lancashire, or at one of the other participating universities: University of Texas, University of Cologne, Leiden University, and the University of Haifa.



Linguistic analyses for this project showed counterexamples to a number of supposedly universal features of sign languages, including the grammatical use of signing space and the occurrence of entity classifiers. One striking outcome is that some of the rural sign languages may also exhibit linguistic complexities that were not previously reported for any sign language. This includes vigesemal number systems (on a par with French quatre-vingts 'eighty') as well as subtractive numerals (e.g. 20-1 for 'nineteen'). The latter are also rare in spoken languages. Intriguingly, these typological rarities do not seem to result from cross-modal contact with any of the surrounding spoken languages.



Findings from the Village Sign project raised awareness amongst other scholars about the plight of village sign languages, their unique characteristics, how they compare to their urban counterparts and their place in the current typology of the world's languages. Publicising the inclusion of sign languages in the overall picture of language typology has led to a major shift in thinking for many spoken language linguists, and has enabled us to develop a new approach to cross-modal typology (an article has been accepted for publication in the leading journal "Linguistic Typology"). The anthropological assessment of these communities was based on a newly developed research protocol tailored to capture the exceptional social and demographic factors that set these signing communities apart from the better known urban deaf communities. This was developed together with the US partner and implemented at all of UCLan's field sites, and work in Israel led to an MA by Research thesis supervised and awarded by UCLan. The communities turned out to vary along dimensions such as community size, ratio of deaf-hearing signers, time depth, and degree of social isolation, but they are all inherently vulnerable to extinction due to unique social dynamics that lead them to evolve. One synergetic outcome is that UNESCO consulted with team members on how to collect information on endangered sign languages. Team members advised UNESCO on amending its questionnaire to make it conducive to sign language data. The result of this cooperation is that, for the first time, sign languages will be included in UNESCO's Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger. UCLan also obtained further funding for research and documentation on Kata Kolok and Mardin Sign Language on the basis of this project.
Exploitation Route The salient non-academic uses of this research are threefold, and include education and community development, increased public awareness and access to linguistic information, and the presence of endangered sign languages in the policies and literature of high-level international organisations.



Firstly, this project led to a range of 'applied', educational and community awareness materials about several sign languages. For example, the Village Sign team produced a DVD of signs for the Alipur Sign Language community, which was broadcast repeatedly on the local television channel, and contributed to establishing school education for the deaf children in the village. 17 deaf children in Alipur now have access to school education for the first time. For Mardin Sign Language, a heritage language project is now underway to ensure availability of educational materials for this dying language, and this work had attracted further funding by the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme. Dictionaries of Chican Sign Language, Kata Kolok (Bali), and Algerian Jewish Sign Language are currently in progress as well, and these aim to benefit the local communities. Community development was also fostered by the participation of several deaf researchers in the Village Sign team, from Mexico, India, Turkey and Israel. These individuals are now leaders of their respective communities and provide liaison between their traditionally disenfranchised deaf community members and academic, governmental and non-governmental organisations.



Second, a major success of Village Sign stems from its embedding of endangered sign language research in a highly visible and prestigious context, from which sign language using communities have benefited. Member of the research team organised several outreach activities to inform the general public about issues of small-scale and endangered sign languages. The team was represented twice at the Endangered Languages Week hosted at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, which is a prominent public event. At the University of Central Lancashire, the research featured in a public exhibition as part of our Institute's five-year anniversary, and in a public workshop highlighting our international work.



Thirdly, because the project team amalgamated expertise from linguistics and anthropology to create the largest-ever grouping of academics working on sign language endangerment, the scale and scope of this work became unprecedented in the field of sign language linguistics; this has brought the research to the attention of external bodies such as UNESCO and the World Federation of the Deaf. One of the most interesting non-academic results of Village Sign is the forthcoming inclusion of sign languages in UNESCO's Atlas of World Languages , due to project members' adaptation of UNESCO's language data questionnaire and their contribution of data on village sign languages. This long-awaited recognition of the issue of sign language endangerment represents a major step forward for deaf communities worldwide.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://www.uclan.ac.uk/research/environment/projects/endangered_sign_languages_village_communities.php
 
Description The project has led to engagement with high-level international bodies. In June 2011, the project led to PI Zeshan being invited to join a meeting of experts on language endangerment hosted at UNESCO in Paris. The expert group had been working since 2003 and had produced the important Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger (in print and as a web database). However, no sign languages were represented, and most members of the expert group were not aware of sign languages also being endangered. In November 2011, PI Zeshan and deaf team member Dikyuva were invited to present at a conference on "Sign languages as endangered languages" hosted by the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) and the European Union of the Deaf (EUD) in Al, Norway. The project team then worked with the sign linguistics expert group of the WFD, as well as with other colleagues in sign linguistics, to adapt the UNESCO questionnaire on language endangerment to the particular situation of sign languages. This questionnaire was used to gather data on endangered sign languages and to analyse them. Data were submitted to the Foundation for Endangered Languages, the intermediary for inclusion of data into the UNESCO Atlas, but the Atlas project was discontinued due to lack of funding before the sign language data could be put online. The researchers are now pursuing alternatives for continuing this line of work. In the rural communities themselves, there have been several sign language awareness initiatives during the lifetime of the project.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description Longitudinal Documentation of Sign Language Acquisition in a Deaf Village in Bali
Amount £8,632 (GBP)
Organisation University of Cambridge 
Department Arcadia Programme
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2011 
End 07/2012
 
Description Signing in a "deaf family" - documentation of Mardin Sign Language, Turkey
Amount £74,980 (GBP)
Organisation University of Cambridge 
Department Arcadia Programme
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2010 
End 02/2013
 
Title Reference Corpus of Adamorobe Sign Language 
Description Nyst, V. (2012): A reference corpus of Adamorobe Sign Language. A digital, annotated video corpus of the sign language used in the village of Adamorobe, Ghana. Leiden University Centre for Linguistics, Universiteit Leiden. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact A reference corpus of Adamorobe Sign Language. 
 
Title Sign language corpora of German IP 
Description The German project partner has deposited sign language corpora (Adone; Bauer; on Konchri Sain by Cumberbatch; on Kata Kolok by Schwager) at the University of Cologne, consisting of digital annotated video data. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Reference corpora of the German project partner. 
 
Title Un Corpus de reference de la Langue des Signes Malienne II 
Description Nyst, V., Magassouba, M., Sylla, K. (2012): Un Corpus de reference de la Langue des Signes Malienne II. A digital, annotated video corpus of local sign language use in the Dogon area of Mali. Leiden University Center for Linguistics, Universiteit Leiden. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact A reference corpus of the local sign language of Mali. 
 
Description International committee on endangered sign languages 
Organisation Max Planck Society
Department Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
Country Germany 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The research team was instrumental in establishing this international academic committee and organises the work of the committee as well as its engagement with relevant external bodies.
Collaborator Contribution Academics external to the research team contribute to the assessment of data on the vitality status of sign languages around the world.
Impact The committee have assessed the vitality status of 20 sign languages in cooperation with local consultants from the respective signing communities. The systematic methodology for doing this was developed by the committee and is based on work by UNESCO experts, whose questionnaire on the status of endangered languages has been adapted to sign languages. The first results of the sign languages assessed so far are published on the iSLanDS Institute's website.
Start Year 2012
 
Description International committee on endangered sign languages 
Organisation University of Hamburg
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The research team was instrumental in establishing this international academic committee and organises the work of the committee as well as its engagement with relevant external bodies.
Collaborator Contribution Academics external to the research team contribute to the assessment of data on the vitality status of sign languages around the world.
Impact The committee have assessed the vitality status of 20 sign languages in cooperation with local consultants from the respective signing communities. The systematic methodology for doing this was developed by the committee and is based on work by UNESCO experts, whose questionnaire on the status of endangered languages has been adapted to sign languages. The first results of the sign languages assessed so far are published on the iSLanDS Institute's website.
Start Year 2012
 
Description World Atlas of Languages 
Organisation United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
Country Global 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Academics from the International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies (iSLanDS) at the University of Central Lancashire attended a series of consultative meetings at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris throughout 2017/2018 to advise UNESCO on the inclusion of sign languages in their new World Atlas of Languages, which is currently under development. We provided input into the data collection questionnaire for languages.
Collaborator Contribution UNESCO are constructing a World Atlas of Languages, in which they would like to collect data from both signed and spoken languages. UNESCO hosted the meetings attended by members of iSLanDS, and covered costs for inviting other experts such as from the World Federation of the Deaf.
Impact Our academics compiled suggested changes to the data questionnaire that could form the basis of data collection for the Atlas, when it was under development in 2017, and discussed their importance at a series of expert meetings at UNESCO. As a result, the latest draft of the data instrument (as of March 2018) includes options for entering sign language data along with spoken language data. The data collection instrument will be sent by UNESCO to all its member states, so it will highlight the inclusion of sign languages in the Atlas to the member states.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Contribution toAHRC Impact Report 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An article titled "Influencing language policies" reported on outcomes from the AHRC funded research project on village sign languages and other minority sign languages.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/documents/project-reports-and-reviews/the-impact-of-ahrc-research/2014-2015/
 
Description Cross-CRP exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact The VillageSign group organised a Cross-CRP exhibition during the EuroBabel final conference, where members of the Ob-Ugric and the Alor Pantar teams participated, showing academic publications, educational materials, videos of fieldwork, and cultural items. This contributed to the diversity of activities of the event.

There was positive feedback from the audience and many participants visited the exhibition.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Exhibition stall at SOAS during Endangered Languages Week 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The UK team organised an exhibition stall about EuroBabel at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) during Endangered Languages Week in both 2010 and 2011. These exhibitions are open to the general public.

The UK team also presented an exhibition stall during Endangered Languages Week 2011 at SOAS, London. This was also for 6 days, from 9-14 May 2011.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010,2011
 
Description Exhibition stall at the International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies 5-year anniversary event 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The UK Village Sign team set up an exhibition stall, including a subtitled video of their work, at the five-year anniversary event for the iSLanDS Institute in Preston, UK, on 7 July 2012. This event was open to the public.

The UK Village Sign team set up an exhibition stall, including a subtitled video of their work.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Interview featuring E. Maypilama 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An interview featuring E. Maypilama from the Yolngu Sign Language communitywith Yolngu radio in Australia in October 2012 was arranged by the German team.

Radio interview with Yolngu Sign Language community member E. Maypilama.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description Interview for BBC Radio 4 series Word of Mouth 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Village Sign team members were interviewed about the impact of the project by reporters from the BBC Radio 4 series Word of Mouth at the conference "Language Endangerment: Documentation, Pedagogy, and Revitalization" at The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, Cambridge, UK, on 25 March 2011.This was broadcast on 29 March 2011.

Reporters from the BBC Radio 4 programme series "Word of Mouth" interviewed member of the Village Sign Team (Dikyuva, Escobedo Delgado, Zeshan).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
 
Description guest lecture of Dr Nonaka at interpreter workshop in Bangkok, Thailand 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Dr Nonaka delivered a guest lecture at an interpreter-training workshop in Bangkok, Thailand. She has engaged in a number of pedagogical endeavours of this kind to promote public understanding of sign varieties - Social dynamics and linguistic structure in Leiden, Netherlands.

Guest lecture at interpreter-training workshop.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
 
Description iSLanDS blog posts on EuroBabel 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Work on EuroBabel was reported several times on the UK team's blog of the iSLanDS Institute at http://islandscentre.wordpress.com. This blog now has over 7,700 hits.

The iSLanDS blog has included posts on EuroBabel since its inception in September 2010. The blog now receives over 300 hits per month.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2010