BSL SignBank is the first British Sign Language dictionary based on actual use

University College London has just launched BSL SignBank, a new online British Sign Language (BSL) dictionary – the first ever to be based on how Deaf people actually use the language. Click on a letter, choose a word, and you can see exactly how to sign it. (That’s ‘computer‘, above.)

Previously, online BSL dictionaries were based on English translations interpreted by just a handful of people. This new resource  is based on the British Sign Language Corpus Project, which ran from 2008-2011 and aimed to document how Deaf people around the country actually communicate, by recording and describing the signs they used. (A corpus is a collection of real-life examples of people using a language, and as anyone who’s ever studied linguistics knows, universities love ‘em.) As in other languages, BSL has its own grammar, vocabulary, and regional dialects, but because it can’t be written down, there have been few attempts to record its structure based on actual use, as happens with spoken languages.

Staff at UCL’s Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL) compiled the dictionary from signs used by 249 Deaf people who were filmed all over the UK. They want it to become the most comprehensive and up-to-date record of BSL, for people who use the language, teach it, or who want to learn. They’ll keep adding to it and are asking Deaf BSL users (of whom there are around 156,000 in the UK) to let them know which signs need to be added. Senior DCAL researcher Kearsy Cormier said, ‘We are delighted to launch BSL SignBank. It is a living dictionary and will grow as we view and study more of the BSL Corpus.’

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Diane Shipley