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The Sign Hub: preserving, researching and fostering the linguistic, historical and cultural heritage of European Deaf signing communities with an integral resource

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - SIGN-HUB (The Sign Hub: preserving, researching and fostering the linguistic, historical and cultural heritage of European Deaf signing communities with an integral resource)

Reporting period: 2017-04-01 to 2018-09-30

SIGN-HUB aims to provide the first comprehensive response to the societal and scientific challenge resulting from generalized neglect of the cultural and linguistic identity of signing Deaf communities in Europe. It will provide an innovative and inclusive resource hub for the linguistic, historical and cultural documentation of the Deaf communities' heritage and for sign language assessment in clinical intervention and school settings. To this end, it will create an open state-of-the-art digital platform with customized accessible interfaces. The project will initially feed that platform with core content in the following domains, expandable in the future to other sign languages: (i) digital grammars of 6 sign languages, produced with a new online grammar writing tool; (ii) an interactive digital atlas of linguistic structures of the world's sign languages; (iii) online sign language assessment instruments for education and clinical intervention, and (iv) the first digital archive of life narratives by elderly signers, subtitled and partially annotated for linguistic properties. These components, made available for the first time through a centralized platform to specialists and to the general public, will (a) help explore and value the identity and the cultural, historical and linguistic assets of Deaf signing communities, (b) advance linguistic knowledge on the natural languages of the Deaf and (c) impact on the diagnosis of language deficits within these minorities. SIGN-HUB will thus contribute to the dissemination and reuse of those assets in broader contexts, as part of European identity. The project is a critical attempt to rescue, showcase and boost that largely unknown part of our common heritage, as well as to ultimately enhance the full participation of Deaf citizens in all spheres of public life on an equal footing with hearing citizens.
The project has advanced in all objectives and planned tasks. The platform, a resource hub on sign languages, has begun to be developed. A draft of the interface for Grammar writers (the form to enter their descriptions) has been designed. In parallel, existing standard algorithms, procedures and mechanisms to represent, analyze, store and retrieve documents and media content to or from on-line platforms have been researched.
Content work is fourfold: Grammars writing, preparation of the Atlas, design of assessment tools, and interviews to elderly Deaf signers.
Researchers have started to write sections following the guidelines of the SignGram Blueprint (in press). They tackle topics that have already been studied in the literature and new, unresearched topics.
The Atlas task has begun constructing its logical structure, with two targets: (i) the technical structure and its requirements; (ii) online Questionnaire designed to be filled also by external collaborators.
The sign language assessment tests are being developed. Comprehension and production lexical tasks were designed, as well as pilots for lexical tasks and stimuli validation. For syntax assessment tests, the litmus constructions and the corresponding set of syntactic assessment tests have been determined.
Finally, the digital archive of old signers’ linguistic and cultural heritage has laid its basis. The teams of Deaf and hearing researchers have started conducting interviews. Israel and France, though, have established contacts with institutions where historical films are archived and started with their digitalization.
Dissemination and outreach activities have four lines of action: (i) SIGN-HUB on the Internet (general project website, in International Sign and English, and national websites, in the local spoken and sign languages); (ii) dissemination documents; (iii) organization of events (first SIGN-HUB conference, FEAST 2016, and a Summer School in Gargnano, 2017); and (iv) participation in events.
Progress beyond the state of the art is foreseen in the following areas, with the associated concrete results: 1. Sign Language transmission for most deaf individuals is atypical and thus strongly impacted upon by the lack of comprehensive linguistic knowledge. The creation of online reference grammars and an interactive atlas of sign language structures addresses this challenge directly. 2. Very few tools are available for assessment of sign language deficits. The tests to be developed aim at overcoming some of the limitations in existing materials, by relying on the knowledge gained in research on sign language grammars. 3. No systematic attempt at creating a digital archive of elderly signers’ linguistic and cultural heritage exists. The project fills this gap with an archive of their life narratives, thus documenting the recent history of European Deaf communities and the older forms of the sign languages involved, laying the ground for empirically solid micro-diachronic research and study of grammaticalization in the visual modality of language. 4. Assistive technology is still in its infancy especially when considering Deaf and Deafblind populations. The project will provide standards on how to build sign-friendly interfaces. The greatest ambition is that of creating a unique, multi-accessible place to store, consult and recover information about sign language and Deaf culture.
The expected impacts of the project are diverse. The first one is scientific: (i) it will boost sign language grammar description and analysis; (ii) it will enhance our understanding of the language faculty, so far strongly biased towards spoken languages; (iii) it will trigger new insights into the cognitive processes associated with language acquisition in exceptional circumstances and in bimodal bilingualism; (iv) it will deepen our understanding of the factors at play in language change; (v) it will help reconstruct and better understand the recent history of European minorities.
The second one of the project concerns knowledge which informs policies both at the European and the national level: (i) it will provide linguistic grounding of instruments and policies in education, health and social welfare (curricula, education professionals, interpreter training and monitoring, language assessment in clinical and educational contexts); (ii) it will inform critical choices for deaf individuals and communities (such as type of schooling or implants) on reliable knowledge; (iii) it will help integrate sign languages into the landscape of European multilingualism for policies and social awareness.
The third one will be societal advance: it will support Deaf citizens and communities in exercising their rights, by increasing their visibility and social recognition, strive to change the social perception of signers by removing the stigma of disability, promote the acceptance of linguistic variation in sign languages next to a standard version of a language, etc. The fourth one is concerned with methodology and research strategy: the many-sided approach to the study of European sign languages, their history and their cultural manifestations guarantee a rich and broad combination of methodological perspectives and research strategies. The fifth one is technological. The outcomes of the project will be made available online through the use of a customized platform and by developing ergonomic interfaces for Deaf users. The sixth one is the engagement of agents from civil society in research and policy forming at the local, regional, national and European level.
The fifth meeting of the FEAST, the official conference of SIGN-HUB (Venice, September 1-2, 2016)
The SIGN-HUB team (Venice, 2016)
The SIGN-HUB logo