Email Message, September 1998
Tue, 15 Sep 1998 20:18:27 -0300
Hello. My name is Fernando Capovilla. I am a PhD in Experimental Psychology, and a Psychology Professor at the Institute of Psychology of the University of Sao Paulo (Sao Paulo, Brazil), where I have created the Cognitive Neuropsycholinguistics Laboratory. I also work as Brazil Representative at the International Society for Alternative Communication, and editor of a scientific periodical published the Institute of Psychology titled Ciencia Cognitiva: Teoria, Pesquisa e Aplicacao (Cognitive Science: Theory, Research and Application).
Over the last ten years I have developed multimedia communication systems that run in computer networks for the purpose of allowing deaf amputees (as well as deaf people with cervical spinal cord injury) to communicate. The systems allow the selection of animated signs from Brazilian Sign Language via touch-sensitive screens as well as via air-puff, eye-blink, eye-gaze, etc (I have also computerized a number of symbol and sign set systems for the cerebral-palsied such as Blissymbolics, Johnson's Picture Communication Symbols, Maharaj's Pictogram Ideogram Communication Symbols, etc., besides dozens of computerized procedures for cognitive assessment and treatment of aphasics, dyslexics, etc). Once the messages have been composed via sign selection, they can be both printed and spoken (via digitized voice output) in both Portuguese and English. Thus, my systems allow a Brazilian deaf person to communicate both directly face-to-face as well as remotely (via netware) with an American Deaf person, as well as with a Brazilian or American blind person, even if the Brazilian deaf is confined to a wheelchair with no hand or body movements. The systems also register all the interaction in real time, thus allowing studies of dyad extended "naturalistic" interaction. One of the main advantages is that the deaf persons do not need to give up their sign language when they need to communicate over the phone (as in the text telephones). Another advantage is the transcoding between Brazilian and American sign language signs, which does not happen yet when deaf people communicate abroad using a videotext. Even so, this technology is recent and there are a num,ber of fascinating problems, especially those concerning the spatial syntax of sign languages, and how to encode it using a computer system. (Perhaps SignWriting can help with that, if we can devise a cross-indexing system along with word prediction, based on SignWriting units. I have to study further SignWriting and most certainly must benefit from discussing with the colleagues who have been working with SignWriting for a long time).
The reason why I have created the periodical Cognitive Science: Theory, Research and Application is to serve as a vehicle to publish the several dozens of experiments that we have conducted on the efficacy on these systems with users with different characteristics (sensory, motor and cognitive). (The periodical is published every semester and has 440 pages, so you can see that the work has been quite intense and proficuous... My theoretical background in in information processing, and I am interested in cognitive processing of information by the deaf, such as working memory processes of quiro-articulatory covert rehearsal, imagery and linguistic processes, etc.).
Last January my students and I published a Brazilian Sign Language Handbook (Manual ilustrado de sinais e sistema de comunicacao em rede para surdos) that also describes one of our netware multimedia communication systems. By selling the book I obtained funds to pay deaf informants, and over the last 8 months my students and I have been documenting 3200 Brazilian Sign Language signs in a new 600 page Dictionary (which is in the final phase of creation). The signs are drawn in three to five stages of movement, they are accompanied by arrows, and a thorough morphological description. We are very, very glad of coming to the very last phase of a very tiresome work.
Even so, I always felt that a sign notation system was missing. Already in the first handbook, I stressed the need of such a system. But it was not until two weeks ago that I found the SignWriting Site. You can imagine just how extactic I was! It was all that I had dreamt of! I could finally write the signs from our dictionary, and thus contribute to the consolidation of Brazilian Sign Language (especially because one of my research projects includes travelling all over this continental-size country and documenting dialects from different states, including all of them in a comprehensive Sign Language Dictionary that rescues signs used in different remote regions of this country, so as to document the richness and imense diversity of this language).
I just had to come to know better that system. I tried to make contact with some fellow countrypersons about it, but unfortunately at that time there was no information available (perhaps they were travelling, perhaps their emails have changed, I don't know). No information, until someone finally answered my calls for information.
And that was precisely Valerie Sutton herself!
I have sent Valerie the periodical and the handbook, and promissed her to send her the dictionary as soon as it is published (about Feb-March 99 in paper, and a bit later in CD format with with animated signs). In exchange, she promissed to send the last version of SignWriting adapted to Portuguese. With this system, should it prove feasible, my crew of 25 students (6 at the doctoral level, 3 at the master's, 2 at the post-doc level, and the remaining at the scientific initiation level) and I will work hard on transcribing the 3200 signs of our dictionary using SignWriting.
We have a tremendous amount of energy, and despite not knowing everything, we are more than competent to learn everything, provided that the attitudes of scientific curiosity and the desire of creating something of true functional value are maintained.
Well, that's it for now. Valerie asked me to send a message to the list telling the list members about the work that we intend to conduct together.
I hope I could give you some hints for a start. I certainly have quite a lot to learn from you.
Email Message, October 1998
Date: Sat, 3 Oct 1998 18:36:05 -0300
Valerie wrote: In the past Deaf people never wrote in their
native language, so even though they are native signers, and
even if they know the SignWriting symbols fluently, it doesn't
always mean that they will automatically know how to write their
native language. That takes training, and they did not learn
this in school. In fact, they were told just the opposite - that
all writing was "spoken language" so therefore they
start to think in a spoken language when they pick up a pencil
- and they don't even realize it themselves. But slowly, if they
write signs more and more, that changes. In other words, this
is a process and a complex one.
In my lab we have developed training procedures involving phonological awareness of hearing K1-2nd grade kids, and have proven the wonderfully strong impact of those training procedures upon reading and writing abilities (of the Portuguese alphabetic orthography). These findings tend to be robust and are quite well established in the majority of spoken languages. I think that something very similar to the phonological awareness training could be done with respect to sign language using SignWriting. I am very interested in the fundamental morphological and phonological aspects of sign language (such as described by Klima & Bellugi, 1979), in the nature of systematic training procedures devised to increase the awareness about them, and in the assessment of the consequences of that training in increasing the abilities of writing signs by means of SignWriting, along with its eventual transfer to writing in an alphabetical code. That seems to be promising research.
I'd like to establish contact with researchers interested in cognitive processing in the deaf (e.g., 1. the nature of covert rehearsal of information in the working memory of the deaf -- and the eventual involvement of Baddeley's visual spatial sketchboard, 2. cognitive models of information processing in the deaf with respect to sign encoding and decoding, 3. sign processing in the deaf aphasics, etc. like in Poizner, Klima & Bellugi's 1987 What the hands reveal about the brain), as well as in phonological awareness training in the deaf child as a means of increasing reading and writing performance in SignWriting. (SL phonology in the sense used by Ronnie Wilbur, for instance, in Wilbur's 1984 Why syllables? What the notion means for ASL research, In: Fischer & Siple, Theoretical issues in sign language research).
Email Message, March, 1999
Date: Sun, 21 Mar 1999 23:00:03 -0300
Good news: After lots of grant applications, we have secured the scholarship for the artist who's performing the illustrations, as well as three from the eight scholarships that we had for the research team. Thus, it seems that, despite all the terror and turmoil brought by the economic crisis, and in spite of the ubiquitous grant cuts that have been prescribed by the IMF (which, by the way is far sharper than Ockham or the French guillotine when it comes to razors...) as arsenic medicine to kill the patient (ops, I mean, the disease...), we'll be able to finish our Brazilian Sign Language Dictionary after all, even though with a much smaller financed research team.
The nice thing is that we already have 3200 signs fully described
in their morphology and meticulously illustrated in great real-life
drawings. About 1500 of them have already been fully reviewed
and approved of by the National Federation for the Education
and Integration of the Deaf. Our weekly sistematic review sessions
at the NFEID office are progressing well, and they have been
giving us full support. Our SignWriting team is also progressing
well. The problem with the SW task is that we can only start
working on writing the signs from a new letter when all of them
have been fully reviewed and approved of by that Federation so
as to avoid redoing the same sign over and over for the nth time.
Our Brazilian Sign Language Dictionary is going to be a beautiful
piece of craftsmanship, as well as a solid tool and reference
source for the deaf, the deaf educators, the counselling practitioners
of the deaf and scientists in linguistics, psychology and anthropology
involved in deaf studies. We shall conclude work hopefully by
October-December. In the meantime, we'll keep on battling against
adversity. In our hearts there's no doubt that we'll end up winning
this peace. (This is such an area where you have to abandon the
war of pessimistic expectations and somber vaticinations in order
to win the necessary peace so as to be able to dive deep and
get the necessary job done). Please forgive our silence. Sometimes
we feel like a hunchbacked whale, mostly silent, holding our
breath, deeply immersed in this misteriously rich, profound and
yet semi-undocumented mostly virgin language, where not much
light has been... Glub glub :-)