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What language documentation via corpora can do for local communities: The case of sign languages

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Title: What language documentation via corpora can do for local communities: The case of sign languages
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: Sign languages exist in unique sociolinguistic circumstances: they are young minority languages with few native signers and an interrupted pattern of intergenerational transmission. As a consequence, it is often difficult for even native signers to be certain as to what is and is not an acceptable construction in their language. This has led to a pressing need to test the claims made by many existing descriptions and analyses of sign languages because they have often been based on limited datasets from a small number of signers.

To resolve these problems, sign linguists are increasingly turning to corpora. A modern linguistic corpus (e.g. the British National Corpus of English) is understood to refer to a large collection of spoken, written or signed language data (with associated metadata) that is in machine-readable form, is maximally representative (as far as is possible) of the language and its users, and can be consulted to study the type and frequency of constructions in a language. The need for corpora is driven by the assumption that processing of large amounts of annotated texts can reveal patterns of language use and structure not available to everyday user intuitions or even to expert detailed analysis.

In addition to benefits for linguists, there are also potential benefits to local communities through the creation of corpora. Corpora provide an important means of recording endangered languages as they are used today for posterity; this includes sign languages (Johnston, 2004; Nonaka, 2004; Author, 2010). Additionally, further empirical research on linguistic structure and the documentation of words/signs used in the language (e.g., via a corpus-based dictionary) will inform and improve teaching materials which will, in turn, lead to the improvements in the training of teachers and interpreters, and in the education of children in the local community.

In this presentation, we will describe some of the major corpora that now exist or are being developed for sign languages - including the British Sign Language Corpus and the Auslan (Australian Sign Language) Corpus - and other language documentation efforts with sign languages. In doing so, we will show how, at a fundamental level, the aims and methodologies of linguistic corpora need not be very different from traditional language documentation efforts. We will also explore the benefits of corpora for local communities, particularly in language teaching and learning, and the implications of this not just for sign languages but for spoken/written languages as well.

Johnston, Trevor. 2004. W(h)ither the deaf community? Population, genetics and the future of Australian Sign Language. American Annals of the Deaf 148.5, 358-75.

Nonaka, Angela. 2004. Sign languages - the forgotten endangered languages: lessons on the importance of remembering. Language in Society 33.5, 737-67.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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