English Translation
by Dr. Fernando Capovilla

Journal of the Sao Paulo State Research Foundation
July 1999, Number 44, pages 28-29

Read and Feel
Researchers at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Sao Paulo prepare the first dictionary of Brazilian Sign Language

This text is of great interest to anyone interested in the well being of deaf children. It is important that deaf children from hearing families be put in contact with a deaf signing community and be immersed in sign language at a very early age, so as to make sure they will benefit and develop language and cognitive skills at a normal rate. International studies show that about 10 percent of the world population suffers from hearing losses. In Brazil, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO) there are 15 million people with hearing losses, and 350 thousand of them are profoundly deaf.

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.

Reliable source
The dictionary has many uses as a source of information for studies and consultation, even by deaf instructors of Brazilian Sign Language, who will be able to use it for teaching the structure and grammar of the language. But its main application will certainly be in the daily teaching of deaf children. For the first time the teachers of deaf children will have a reliable source of information, composed for the deaf with the participation of deaf informants, and thoroughly revised by deaf organizations and institutes devoted to the education of the 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.

Structured language
Besides the illustration of sign morphology and sign meaning, the dictionary also provides the writing of each sign in Sutton's direct visual writing system SignWriting, which were composed by means of the SignWriter software. The use of such an international system for writing signs is exceedingly important. Professor Capovilla explains that since the alphabetic writing system maps the sounds of speech, literacy acquisition in a phonic approach is natural for the hearing child who does not suffer from phonological handicaps. In fact, the phonological errors that hearing children make when learning to read and write demonstrate just how important is the role played by sound in reading and writing acquisition by the hearing child. Conversely, such teaching of reading and writing in an alphabetic system is of immense benefit to the language development of the hearing child.

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.

Sutton's SignWriting is used around the world by the deaf and hearing as a tool for writing letters, poems, articles, psalms, literary texts such as tales and children's carrols, and so on, in the language of signs that is typical of each country or region. However, according to professor Capovilla, its main function is not to replace alphabetic writing, but rather to serve as an instrument for the psycholinguistic development of deaf children in their critical period of language maturation, just like the alphabetic writing system is for the six to seven-year old hearing child. Using the sign bank composed of the dictionary, professor Capovilla and his research team are concluding a multimedia communication system called SignPhone.

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), and vice-versa.

The system will also be amenable to operation in the indirect mode, that is, via automatic screening and selection via devices sensitive to discrete movements, as well as to air-puff, groan, eye-blink, eye-gaze, etc. Thus, even the cerebral-palsied and tetraplegic deaf users will be able to operate the system, composing and sending messages in sign language, printing them in sign language or written Portuguese or English, and sounding them with digitized speech in both spoken languages. Therefore, differently from the text telephones, which force the deaf to relinquish their own sign language when trying to telecommunicate, SignPhone will allow Brazilian deaf people to communicate at distance, even with deaf and hearing foreigners, using nothing but their very own beloved sign language. As one can see clearly, the effort of the researchers affiliated to the Institute of Psychology open new perspectives that surpass the scope of a dictionary.

Professor Fernando Capovilla, from the Experimental Cognitive Neuropsycholinguistics Laboratory of the Institute of Psychology at the University of Sao Paulo (USP), has been working for the last ten years with children with severe communication and language handicaps resulting from neurological impairments of a sensory-motor or central-cognitive nature. He and his student co-workers have created more than one hundred software systems devoted to diagnosing and treating language and communication impairments in children and adults. Capovilla obtained his Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, in 1989, and has been elected (1996-2000) president of the Brazilian Chapter of the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, an international organization devoted to helping people with severe language and communication impairments.



 Scanned Article, p.28

Scanned Article, p.29

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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