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Research Deaf:
Brazilian Sign Language Dictionary to be released soon

Article published in the Journal da USP, Brazil, April, 1999, page 9, written by Izabel Leão, The University of São Paulo Post. English translation below by Dr. Fernando Capovilla...


Research Deaf:
Brazilian Sign Language Dictionary
to be released soon

The book was prepared by a psychology professor and a psychologist and will be available also in CD ROM format and, soon on the Internet. It contains 3,500 signs to help deaf people to communicate among themselves as well as with the culture at large.

A pioneer research will facilitate the lives of thousands of deaf people and their hearing relatives, friends and co-workers, who will finally be able to consult a Brazilian Sign Language Dictionary. It contains 3,500 signs and will be available in book format, as a CD ROM and eventually on the Internet. The book is organized by Dr. Fernando Capovilla, a Psychology professor who teaches Experimental Cognitive Neuropsycholinguistics at the University of São Paulo, and by his research associate, the psychologist Walkíria Raphael. The University of São Paulo Post interviewed Dr. Capovilla, who talked about the dictionary, its importance, and the benefits that its release will bring to the Brazilian deaf community.

The University of São Paulo Post: Tell us about the dictionary: its characteristics, format, content and the way it was accomplished.

Fernando Capovilla: The book is titled Brazilian Sign Language Dictionary: Illustration and SignWriting of 3500 signs used by the Deaf in São Paulo. It is the product of a six-year research effort. It contains 12,000 illustrations by Silvana Marques, which are distributed in about 1 thousand pages. Each sign is illustrated in sequential stages with arrows added, so as to represent precisely the movement involved. Each sign is also written in the direct visual writing system SignWriting, which was created by Valerie Sutton in California in the 70's and is nowadays used around the world for writing signs both in a practical way (by the deaf child) and in a precise way (by the linguist).

The University of São Paulo Post: What are the objectives of the dictionary?

Fernando Capovilla: The dictionary will produce a significant increase of deaf children's sign vocabulary, reduce the mind puzzling variation in signs that distorts daily teaching and communication by the deaf, and spread the awareness and use of SignWriting as a means of writing down the signs of the deaf language in a visual, direct way, without the mediation of glosses. Each of the 3500 signs is written down in SignWriting, and depicted in a life-like illustration. In addition to that, a systematic morphological description is provided, so as to permit its precise performance, and allow for studies in the comparative linguistics of signs.

The University of São Paulo Post: Tell us more about the readership who will benefit from the dictionary.

Fernando Capovilla: Deaf people in general, their friends and relatives and co-workers, deaf teachers and their hearing colleagues, psychologists who practice with deaf clients, linguists who study Brazilian Sign Language, psycholinguists who study language development in deaf children, neuropsychologists who study brain lesions in deaf aphasics and loss of sign language, speech-language pathologists, anthropologists, novelists, screenwriters and writers interested in documenting deaf folklore and writing down deaf tales that are transmitted from generation to generation in deaf communities.

The University of São Paulo Post: In addition to the printed version as a book, will there be another version?

Fernando Capovilla: Yes. There will be a CD ROM version with graphic animation of signs. In this version the signs will be indexed on the basis of sign morphology (hand articulation, palm orientation with respect to signing planes, place of articulation with respect to body and signing space, type and direction of movement involved, and associated facial expression). This morphological indexing will allow a deaf reader to locate the desired sign without the need for intermediation of glosses in Portuguese. On the other hand, using the Portuguese glosses arranged alphabetically, as well as the corresponding drawings, a hearing reader who is not familiar with sign language may locate the corresponding sign for a given meaning.

The University of São Paulo Post: Is there a universal language for deaf people?

Fernando Capovilla: Sign languages are not universal, but vary from country to country, and region to region, even more so than spoken languages do, as one might expect from a language that remained in the so called "oral tradition" (i.e., before the advent of its consolidation in writing). Yet, the direct visual writing system devised by Sutton (i.e., SignWriting) is universal, insofar as it represents the objective visual properties of the morphology (or "choreography" in the dance of signs in space) of signs, in whatever sign language one can apply it to. SignWriting allows for the precise representation of the signs of a given sign language (e.g., American Sign Language or Brazilian Sign Language). However, the readers may understand a text written in SignWriting only if they are familiar with the signs that comprise the specific sign language that SignWriting is being used to represent.

The University of São Paulo Post: Tell us about the process of creating such a kind of dictionary.

Fernando Capovilla: Using the resources accruing from the sales of our previous publications on solutions for children with special needs, we managed to hire deaf informants and to gather an enthusiastic team of undergraduate and graduate research assistants in psychology, computer sciences, arts, linguistics and speech-language pathology. Over the last year, we have also had the competent collaboration of deaf informants from organizations such as the National Federation for the Education and Integration of the Deaf (FENEIS-SP). We already have all signs illustrated, defined, and described. They are now been systematically revised by a number of deaf task groups working under the National Coordinator of Brazilian Sign Language Courses in cooperation with our laboratory at the University of São Paulo. The work involved is gigantic. We are also performing the digitalization, graphic animation and indexation of the 3500 signs in order to conclude the computerized system in CD ROM. At the University of São Paulo we have concluded a multimedia communication system based on the animated signs, and we are working on its SignWriting version right now.

The University of São Paulo Post: What are the benefits that this system will bring for the deaf?

Fernando Capovilla: The end product of all this research effort will be a highly effective means of consultation, communication, reading and writing for the deaf. As a means of communication devised for the deaf with severe motor impairements, the system allows communication between deaf and hearing people, both face to face and via local networks. Sign selection may be performed directly via mouse or touch sensitive screen, or indirectly via automatic scanning and devices sensitive to air-puff, discrete movements, groan, eye-blink, or eye-gaze. Sign selection results in messages that may be spoken with digitized speect output (with voice appropriate to the deaf's gender and age), printed in 1) written Portuguese, 2) Brazilian Sign Language illustrated signs, and 3) SignWriting. In the future, we also plan to have the system running on the Internet, so as to introduce Brazilian and American deaf people to Brazilian and American friends in both Portuguese and English. At the University of São Paulo we are working on a cyphering system now that is going to translate messages back and forth from Brazilian to American Sign Languages, from English to Portuguese, and from signed to written-spoken languages

The University of São Paulo Post: Why did you have the idea of creating such a dictionary and computer system in the first place? What have been the difficulties involved in such a work?

Fernando Capovilla: In the last decade we have created a myriad of multimedia communication systems that have been exceedingly successful for people with severe motor and speech impairments (e.g., cerebral palsy, aphasias, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, muscular dystrophy), as well as for alexic adults and dyslexic children. The community of educators, practitioners, and researchers have recognized our accomplishments, but have always asked us to develop solutions for the deaf tetraplegic and the deaf cerebral-palsied. At first we thought it would be simple: We just had to replace pictograms and ideograms with animated signs from the Brazilian Sign Language. And we were right! What we did not know, however, was that in this country there is not even one published dictionary that is sufficiently accurate and comprehensive so as to allow us to feed our communication system with it. When we realized that, we started preparing our own first little and modest pilot dictionary, which was published two years ago. We used it to program our multimedia system and to make it run in local networks. And it ran beautifully! Now we are concluding a much, much better dictionary, hundreds of times more accurate and comprehensive, and we are almost ready to use its thousands of animated signs, illustrations, and SignWriting scripts to feed into our megasystem which is going to be at the same time a sign dictionary, a sign searching system, and a sign communication system. The end product will be solid, comprehensive, precise and informative for the purpose of academic research in linguistics and psychology. It will also be attractive and instigating for the purpose of learning both Brazilian Sign Language and its orthography in SignWriting.

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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