When we think about language, often what comes to mind is language that can be spoken, like English. Rarely does sign language come to mind. It might even amaze you to learn that contrary to widespread misconceptions, sign languages have their own grammar and syntax, and can be as complex as spoken languages. Two students from Linguistics and Multilingual Studies, Azzam Akbar and Clara Chee, were given a unique opportunity to work with the local Deaf community on Singapore Sign Language (SgSL).
SgSL is a developing language that is recognised by the Deaf Community. There is little to no documentation of the language and it has evolved — literally silently — over the years together with other languages in Singapore.
“Deaf culture the world over is gaining recognition by the wider community through advocacy from the Deaf community themselves. This often needs support from the Hearing. Azzam’s and Clara’s engagement with the Deaf community is a step forward in his process.”
Ng Bee Chin, internship advisor from Linguistics and Multilingual Studies
Azzam and Clara have always been interested in SgSL which they learnt at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. In May to July 2018, they took up an internship with the Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf). The aim of the internship was to produce a draft of the first online SgSL sign bank. This was organised by their internship advisor Associate Professor Ng Bee Chin from the Linguistics and Multilingual Studies programme. In two months, they videoed 100 signs from the modified Swadesh list for sign languages. They also set up a website with basic information on SgSL and video clips with of the 100 signs. The draft can be seen here: http://www.sgslsignbank.org.sg/. Each entry in the sign bank has an explanation of how to sign it, a GIF, and pictures showing the sign’s movement. Given the novelty of this documentation and the ever changing nature of language, there is also a feedback form on the website to get input from the Deaf and the Hearing.
“The SgSL Sign Bank is a good start given the short time frame you had to work on it. I was impressed with the general layout as it is easy to navigate. Great job on the description of the signs. However, it is important to exercise caution when discussing standardization as languages are constantly evolving. A corpus is a “collection of language” as is actually used by the community. Therefore, it is important to capture variation in signs even if a particular sign is only used by a small percentage of the community.”
Phoebe Tay (Deaf), Dual M.As in Linguistics and International Development
Azzam and Clara are extremely grateful to have met really kind Deaf and Hearing colleagues at the association who were willing to guide and give them new opportunities. After their internship, they were also invited to present their work on the SgSL online bank at the Red Box as part of a series of talks in commemoration of the International Week of the Deaf 2018. For their presentation, they decided to take turns interpreting and speaking; this was challenging since it was their first time delivering a public presentation.
Working with the Deaf Community on SgSL has allowed Azzam and Clara to meet Deaf people from all walks of life. This has taught them that just like spoken language, each Deaf individual’s experience with sign language is unique and complex. They hope that work on the sign bank will not stop here and that it will come to reflect the local Deaf community as comprehensively as possible.
“Both Azzam and Clara have displayed a high degree of integrity and responsibility while they researched corpus development. They showed a positive attitude and commitment to complete their assigned tasks in a timely manner.”
James Ong (Deaf), internship supervisor from SADeaf
This news item was first published in Constellations, the magazine for the Humanities in Singapore.