by Dr. Fernando Capovilla
July 1999, Number 44, pages 28-29
Read and Feel
In order to provide for adequate language development of deaf children, it is necessary to have adequate educational tools. A very important and basic instrument for accomplishing this is a sign language dictionary. Despite its fundamental importance, such a tool was missing in Brazil until now. But that will soon change: A team of researchers from the Cognitive Neuropsycholinguistics Laboratory of the Psychology Institute at the University of Sao Paulo, directed by Professor Fernando Capovilla, has just completed the Dictionary of Brazilian Sign Language: Illustration and direct visual writing of 3500 signs used by the deaf in Sao Paulo.
The dictionary is at its final phase of revision by the National Federation for the Education and Integration of the Deaf (FENEIS). A CD ROM version is planned to be released by the year 2000. Finantial support from FAPESP has helped conducting the research project and creating a multimedia communication system based on the signs of Brazilian Sign Language. An application for publication grant has just been filed by Professor Capovilla at this Research Foundation. In addition to FAPESP, other agencies have cooperated with the research effort, such as the University of Sao Paulo Foundation (FUSP), the Pro-Rectorships of Research (PRPq) and of Culture and Extension (PRCE) of the University of Sao Paulo, as well as the National Council for Scientific and Technological Research (CNPq). A large crew of prominent community members from FENEIS and from the Deaf Cooperative Padre Vicente (COPAVI) have participated as both deaf informants and deaf review board members.
The perspectives are exceedingly promising. "The dictionary may be the first step to reach the standardization of Brazilian Sign Language signs", said the coordinator of the Sao Paulo Rotary Foundation Special School for Deaf Children, the speech-language pathologist Sabine Vergamini. According to her, one of the major problems that the educators are faced with is to find, even within the very city of Sao Paulo, a number of different signs being used to represent the same meaning, so that even the deaf are frequently truly puzzled with the variability. According to her, the publications that have been available so far have a number of problems, such as a very large number of artificial signs imported from other sign languages, especially American Sign Language. The dictionary is expected to help solve that situation.
In the paper (book) format, the signs are indexed according
with the alphabetical order of the corresponding glosses in Portuguese.
In the electronic (CD ROM) version, the signs are indexed according
with the morphological characteristics of the signs. In the multimedia
version, the animated signs may be selected either directly via
mouse or touch-sensitive screen, or indirectly via automatic
screening and devices sensitive to air-puff, eye-blink, or other
body parts discrete movements. Thus, the multimedia version may
be used by people with severe motor handicaps, such as the cerebral-palsied
and the tetraplegic deaf.
The book will have about one thousand pages, with approximately 15 thousand illustrations. Each sign is exhibited by means of drawings showing the articulation of the hands, the place of that articulation in the signing space with respect to the body, the direction and type of movement in the signing planes, and finally the facial expression associated with the sign. The movements are illustrated in sequences, with the help of arrows, and the signs appear animated in the CD ROM version.
An illustration of the meaning of the sign appears to the left of the sign illustration. And below there is the corresponding gloss in Portuguese, along with its definition and syntactical classification. This is important to the deaf child, who uses sign language as a meta-language for acquiring written Portuguese. In addition to the definition, there is also a phrase showing the context in which the sign may be used in both Portuguese and Brazilian Sign Language. Finally, a systematic, precise and detailed description is provided for each sign, which is important for linguistics studies on the comparative morphology of signs.
Professor Capovilla explains that Sutton's SignWriting maps
the visual, cheremic properties of sign languages in just the
same linguistic way as the alphabetic writing system maps the
phonological properties of speech. Thus, for the deaf child who
thinks and communicates in sign language the acquisition of reading
and writing signs via SignWriting is as natural as is the acquisition
of reading and writing in the alphabetic system for the hearing
child who thinks and communicates in speech. More importantly,
in exactly the same way as literacy acquisition in an alphabetic
system benefits the way hearing children think and express themselves
in speech, literacy acquisition in SignWriting is to benefit
the way deaf children think and express themselves in sign language.
Hence, SignWriting becomes a vital educational tool for improving
deaf kids' sign language mastery and cognitive development, and
for allowing sign language to reach its fool potential as the
heritage of the Deaf Culture and a cultural treasure for humankind.
Such a system may be used in face-to-face communication, as
well as for remote telecommunication via networks. The system
will work in different modes, one with graphic animation of signs,
and the other with SignWriting, both of them with digitized speech
associated to each sign. In order to allow for international
communication among deaf users, the system will cypher messages
based on signs, from Brazilian Sign Language to American Sign
Language, and vice-versa. In order to allow for international
communication among deaf and hearing users, the system will also
cypher messages based on both, signs and words, from both sign
languages to both spoken-written languages (English and Portuguese),
Dr. Fernando Capovilla
University of Sao Paulo
Institute of Psychology
Av. Prof. Mello Moraes 1721,
Sao Paulo, 05508-900, SP, Brazil