Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

The Effect of New Technologies on Sign Language Research

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

The Effect of New Technologies on Sign Language Research

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper first reviews the fairly established ways of collecting sign language data. It then discusses the new technologies available and their impact on sign language research, both in terms of how data is collected and what new kinds of data are emerging as a result of technology New data collection methods and new kinds of data are illustrated with three specific case studies.

It is well known that studies of the structure and use of sign language usually require the recording of the language in order to create a visual record.1 It is not sufficient simply to observe language as it is being used and then to take notes. Such recording of language has of course involved a number of logistical issues and matters pertaining to the protection of human subjects, given that it is virtually impossible (and not even desirable) to preserve anonymity. As we demonstrate, traditional ways of collecting sign language data involve, by definition, very intensive face-to-face interaction. However, recent technologies have made it possible for signers to see each other and communicate in real time, which is very significant for a visual language and was not really possible until the advent of these technologies. These new developments have also made possible the existence of a huge, readily accessible collection of signed discourse representing a number of genres.

For centuries, deaf people have simply had to be in the physical presence of other deaf people to be able to communicate; there are many stories in the Deaf community in the United States, for example, of deaf people having to walk or drive to the home of the person they wished to communicate with, only to find that the person was not home. Before the most recent innovations that have made it possible to send images over telephone wires or high-speed cable connections, deaf people had been limited to using a form of teletypewriter (the TTY or TDD device) that depended on a typed version of a spoken language and one-way transmission (Mather 1991 ; Nishimura 2003). The TTY is rapidly disappearing now due to the impact of videotelephony and of wireless systems for text messaging. Pagers were already extremely popular in the Deaf community, having been adapted for complex forms of text messaging, and the term pager is now used to refer to mobile phones. The fact that deaf people can now see each other and communicate in real time is nothing short of revolutionary. By sharp contrast, of course, hearing people have been able, for a long time, to simply pick up the telephone and have a spoken-language conversation. They might not be able to see each other, but they could communicate in a natural language.

These new realities are having an impact on how sign language data are collected and also on what kinds of data can be studied. This article first reviews the fairly established ways of collecting sign language data. It then discusses the new technologies and their impact on sign language research, both in terms of how data are collected and the new kinds of data that are emerging as a result of technological innovation. New data-collection methods and new kinds of data are discussed.

In the Olden Days

Some early studies of sign language structure and use (see, for example, Woodward 1973a, 1973b, 1973c; Woodward and DeSantis 1977) often relied on questionnaires for data collection: Signers were shown written glosses of signs or sign structures being analyzed and asked to indicate on a questionnaire whether they used them. In some instances, signers were filmed signing variants with written glosses as stimuli. Videotaping as the main means of collecting data expanded rapidly. Numerous experimental studies have been done on specific aspects of sign language structure and use and on the cognitive processing of sign languages (see Emmorey and McCullough 2009; Emmorey et al. 2008; Grosvald et al. 2012; Gutiérrez et al. 2012), first and second language acquisition (Quadros et al. …

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