The British Sign Language (BSL) Corpus Project was a three and a half year project (initially running from January 1 2008 to December 31 2010, and then extended until June 31 2011) funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (grant RES-062-23-0825). The project was led by staff at the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL) at University College London, but also included researchers from Bangor University (Wales), Heriot-Watt University (Scotland), Queens University Belfast (Northern Ireland) and the University of Bristol (England).
The project had two main aims:
(1) to create a BSL “corpus“: a collection, on the internet, of video clips showing Deaf people using BSL, together with background information about the signers and written descriptions of the signing in ELAN
(2) to carry out research using this collection into BSL grammar and vocabulary, variation in BSL across the country and how BSL is changing.
The BSL Corpus Project research team filmed 249 Deaf people from 8 cities across the United Kingdom: London, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast. We filmed 30 or more people in each city, including a mix of men and women, adults with Deaf parents and those with hearing parents, signers who are young and old, Deaf people in different kinds of jobs, and from different ethnic groups. In each city, we worked with one or more local Deaf people as part of our team. The local deaf community fieldworkers recruited Deaf people that matched our project criteria: most people who participated said that they learned BSL before the age of 7 years and had lived in the same city for the last 10 years or longer.
The 249 Deaf people were filmed in conversations with another Deaf person, answering interview questions, telling stories, and showing their signs for 102 key concepts.
Why is the BSL Corpus important?
The purpose of the BSL Corpus is to record examples of BSL used by Deaf people and to store this information in a collection that is made publicly accessible on-line. This data was collected to have a permanent and secure record of BSL, as the language is used today by fluent signers across the UK. We know that the language is changing rapidly due to changes in the Deaf community, so it is important that we have a record for the future.
Creating the corpus is also useful for several other reasons: it will directly lead to an improved understanding of BSL structure and use. This information is important for the education of Deaf children, for training sign language interpreters, and for BSL teachers. It will also help us to better understand regional variation (e.g., different signs for GREEN or for the number SIX) and change in the vocabulary and grammar of BSL (e.g., new signs for SLEEP or CHINA), and relate it to social factors, such as a signer’s regional background, age or social class (a topic of some debate in the British Deaf community!).
A new approach to sign language research
Another reason that the BSL Corpus Project is important is because it is a new approach to sign language research. In the past, sign language researchers carried out their research by filming Deaf people, but often the videotapes and the data collected was never shared with other researchers or with the Deaf community. Having the BSL corpus on-line means that anyone with a computer and an internet connection is able to see the video data and also background information about the signers involved . This will allow for a greater exchange of ideas and information between sign language researchers in universities and the Deaf community. Sign language corpus projects are the way of the future - similar projects are happening in Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, France, Germany, Greece, The Netherlands, Spain and Sweden.
What will the data be used for?
The data collected is being used to investigate a number of aspects of BSL. First, a set of studies have been conducted on sociolinguistic variation and change in the vocabulary and grammar of BSL (as explained above). A second study looked at a set of 25,000 signs to find out which signs are the most frequently used in BSL conversation.
Other follow-up projects are underway.
Where can I find out more?
We have been presenting the results of some of these studies to the deaf community and at academic conferences. You can see some of presentations and published papers on our publications and presentations page. You can see some of the BSL Corpus Project film clips on our data page.
You can find out about follow-up and current studies and projects on our projects page.