English Translation
by Dr. Fernando Capovilla

Brazilian Sign Language Dictionary
Illustration and direct visual writing of 3500 signs used by the deaf in Sao Paulo

Our research and development team at the Laboratory of Experimental Cognitive Neuropsycholinguistics (LECN) of the Institute of Psychology at the University of São Paulo (IPUSP), Brazil, is concluding the preparation of the first Brazilian Sign Language dictionary: Ilustration and direct visual writing of 3500 signs used by the deaf in São Paulo. The book was ellaborated by the LECN team at IPUSP with the participation of deaf informants from the Padre Vicente Deaf Cooperative (COPAVI-SP) and the National Federation for the Education and Integration of the Deaf (FENEIS-SP). It also has support from the Research Rectorship of the University of São Paulo, the São Paulo State Research Foundation (FAPESP), and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). The signs that compose the dictionary have been thoroughly reviewed for completeness and correctness by a number of deaf groups working at FENEIS-SP under the guidance of the Brazilian Sign Language National Coordinator of Courses, Mr. Eduardo Sabanovaite, who is the official reviewer.

The dictionary is to be released as a printed hardcover book in December 1999, and as a CD ROM by the end of the year 2000. In the book format, the signs are indexed in the alphabetical order of their corresponding glosses in Portuguese. In the CD ROM format, the signs are indexed on the basis of sign morphology, and they are presented with graphic animation and corresponding digitized speech in Portuguese. Thus, while in the book version sign searching must be done on the basis of the alphabetical order of the corresponding glosses in Portuguese, in the CD-ROM version, sign searching may be performed on the basis of the morphological characteristics and structure of Brazilian Sign Language.

The dictionary aims at serving as a multi-purpose source of information. It may be used by deaf people in general who may be interested in expanding both their Brazilian Sign Language lexicon and their Portuguese vocabulary. It may also be used by Brazilian Sign Language deaf teachers who, thanks to the dictionary, will be able to concentrate their efforts in teaching more noble aspects of the Brazilian Sign Language, such as its structure, syntax, and pragmatic aspects of its use in different daily conversational contexts, thus enhancing the liveliness of their classes and consequently the performance of their pupils. The dictionary may also be used by hearing people in general interested in learning sign language, including school teachers and university professors, academic scholars in Linguistics and Anthropology and scientific researchers in Psychology, practitioners and doctors interested in working with deaf patients. One of the most important uses, however, is for the education of Brazilian deaf children by public school teachers throughout Brazil who, henceforth, will have a reliable source of signs, composed and reviewed with intensive participation of the deaf in organizations ran by the deaf and devoted to the education and integration of the deaf.

The book will contain about 15 thousand illustrations distributed in about 1 thousand pages. Each one of the signs is illustrated in life-like line drawings depicting hand articulation, the local of articulation with respect to the body, the movement involved in the signing space, and the associated facial expression. In order to represent the movement involved, signs are illustrated in sequences, and arrows are added. In the CD ROM format, the sequences are superposed so as to produce the illusion of movement. Under the illustration of the sign, there is the corresponding written word in Portuguese, its syntactical classification, and its definition. This is very important in order to allow children to search for Portuguese words on the basis of their natural signs that they use to think, and thus to expand their Portuguese vocabulary using sign language as a meta-language. Following the definition of the word, there is a sentence illustrationg the context in which the word and the sign may be used in both Portuguese and Brazilian Sign Language. Finally, following the sentence illustrating the functional use of the item, there is a precise morphological description of the sign, in order to allow for linguistic studies on sign morphology, and on the comparative structure of signs from different regions of Brazil. The morphological description is also important in order to allow for the indexing of signs in the CD ROM. Such a morphological indexing is critical to allow the computerized search of each and every sign from the dictionary on the basis of its morphological components. The computer engineers under the guidance of Professor Capovilla at the LECN-IPUSP are concluding such a multimedia animated sign searching system, which is to be incorporated in the CD ROM version of the dictionary.

Each life-like sign illustration at the center of the page will be preceded by a life-like illustration of the corresponding sign meaning, on its left. Such a side-by-side arrangement between sign morphology and sign meaning allows for a natural intuitive association between the sign and its corresponding meaning, thus enhancing learning and functional use of the new signs. Such life-like illustrations of sign meaning also contribute to increase the liveliness and appeal of the book for deaf children, thus enhancing the curiosity of their absorbing minds and their thirst for learning. The illustrations also contribute to make signs much more accessible to the visual processing that is typical of the deaf mind, thus permitting a natural and effortless expansion of the sign lexicon without requiring the mediation of an extensive vocabulary in Portuguese. Thus, the book may be used as a resource for the direct and natural learning of both sign morphology and sign writing by the deaf, without the necessity of mediation by the written Portuguese glosses.

On the right side of each sign illustration, the sign appears written in the visual direct writing system called SignWriting (Sutton, 1998, 1999). The sign writing was accomplished with the use of the SignWriter software (Gleaves & Sutton, 1995). Such a direct visual writing system is used around the world for writing stories, cronicles, letters, articles, journals and books in the sign language that used at each country. Since the alphabetic writing system maps the sounds of speech (phonemes), it benefits much more the development of speech by the hearing children than it does the development of signing by the deaf children. The direct visual writing system is designed to do for the deaf children and their sign language what the alphabetic writing system already does for the hearing children: to enhance language structure and formalization, thus contributing in a critical way to the betterment of the children and the culture they are part of.

The systematic teaching of SignWriting increases children's awareness of the cheremic-articulatory constitution of their sign language, thus allowing them to deal with the linguistic properties of their language in an abstract, formal way, thus restructuiring and formalizing their internal signing in exactly the same way as the acquisition of the alphabetic writing system permits hearing children to increase their phonological awareness, to restructure and formalize their linguistic reasoning and their internal speech (Capovilla & Capovilla, 1997). When hearing children learn to write alphabetically, their language capacities and speech benefits immensely, with a marked improvement in cognitive processes involved in thinking in words (such as phonological working memory). When deaf children learn to write signs, their language and signing is likewise expected to benefit immensely, with a marked improvement in their capacity of abstract thinking in signs (such as cheremic working memory). Therefore, in our view, the main function of the direct visual writing system is not to replace the alphabetic script, but rather to provide children with the cognitive tool they need in their critical period of reading-spelling acquisition (just like the alphabet is for the hearing six-seven year old child).

Finally, it is important to notice that, on the basis of the sign lexicon of the dictionary, we at LECN-IPUSP are concluding a multimedia system called SignoFone (Capovilla et al., 1998) for Internet and face-to-face communication based on Brazilian Sign Language signs. Besides animated signs, the system also uses digitized speech, since it is aimed at communication between the deaf, as well as between the deaf and the hearing. The system runs in two different modes: one based on life-like animated drawings and the other based on SignWriting. In the future the system will allow for communication between North-American and Brazilian people, both deaf and hearing, since it is to cypher messages from among the four languages (American Sign Language, Brazilian Sign Language, written and spoken English, written and spoken Portuguese). The messages based in sign language may be composed either directly via mouse or touch in a touch-sensitive screen, or indirectly via automatic scanning and operation by devices sensitive to air-puff, groaning, discrete movements, eye-blink, eye-gaze, etc. A number of prototypes have been generated in our lab over the last seven years, and there are hundreds of severely motor impaired patients who already make use of them in their homes. Such system allows a tetraplegic deaf to compose messages on the base of Brazilian Sign Language, to have them printed out, to have them spoken aloud with digitized voice appropriate to the deaf user's gender and age, to send them via local networks, to have them stored for further access during speeches, and in the near future, also in the Internet. Thus, differently from the text telephones used by the deaf nowadays, in a near future the deaf, even the tetraplegic or cerebral-palsied one, will not have to relinquish their own sign languages in order to be able to use telecommunication or to communicate face-to-face with the hearing, even with the blind hearing.

This is science and technology to the service of the education and integration of the deaf, and to the betterment of Brazilian culture. And our humble, even though exceedingly effort-consuming, dictionary is just the first step. Ellaborated in a cooperative effort between the deaf and the hearing, it is a response to the wise exhortations of King Jordan (1990), from Gallaudet University, to the harmony between the deaf and the hearing, and to the necessity of scientific-technological research in sign language aimed at searching for objective, pragmatic and significant improvements for the education of the deaf child.


Capovilla, A. G., & Capovilla, F. C. (1997). Phonological awareness training
and its impact in phonological, reading and spelling skills from kindergarten 3
to second grade. Cognitive Science: Theory, Research and Application, 1(2),

Capovilla, F. C., Macedo, E. C., Duduchi, M., Raphael, W. D., Charin, S.,
Capovilla, A. G. (1998). SignoFone: Multimedia system based on Brazilian Sign
Language for communication both face to face and via local networks by the deaf
with severe motor impairments. Cognitive Science: Theory, Research and
Application, 2(3), 161-208.

Gleaves, R., & Sutton, V. (1995). SignWriter computer program, version 4.3, La
Jolla, CA: Deaf Action Commitee for SignWriting.

Jordan, I. K. (1990). The American way of Gallaudet: Learning and living with
sign language. In S. Prillwitz, & T. Vollhaber (eds.). Sign language research
and application (pp. 295-304). Hamburg: Signum Press.

Sutton, V. (1998). Lessons in SignWriting. Vols 1 and 2. La Jolla, CA: The Deaf
Action Committee for SignWriting. (translated to Portuguese by R. M. Quadros).

Sutton, V. (1999). SignWriting web site. Available on the Internet in
http://www.signwriting.org La Jolla, CA: Deaf Action Committee for SignWriting.

Scanned Article, p.84

Scanned Article, p.86

Diagrams, Page 88

Scanned Article, p.85

 Diagrams, Page 87

 English Translation

For information contact:
Dr. Fernando Capovilla

Dr. Fernando Capovilla
University of Sao Paulo
Institute of Psychology
Av. Prof. Mello Moraes 1721,
Sao Paulo, 05508-900, SP, Brazil


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