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SignLEF: Sign Language European Frame

Simone Greiner-Ogris
Institute of Translation Studies, University of Graz, Austria


SignLEF is a project of the Lifelong Learning Program and represents an innovation in sign language research.

Project coordinator is the University of Barcelona – partners are Istituto Statale Sordi di Roma and the Centre for Sign language and Deaf communication, Klagenfurt University. SignLEF started in January 2011 and is expected to be completed within three years.

The aim of the project is to develop a common basis for studying the sign languages of Europe in accordance with the guidelines of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for Languages. The whole project is based on Information and communications technology: all documentation and instruction will be done via internet and respective software, users will have complete access to it.

Thanks to CEFR the official instructions for learning and teaching languages in the European Union have been unified. A set of language levels has been developed, making it easier to standardise all the various qualifications.

The six levels are:

  • A Basic speaker
    • A1 Breakthrough or beginner
    • A2 Waystage or elementary
  • B Independent Speaker
    • B1 Threshold or intermediate
    • B2 Vantage or upper intermediate
  • C Proficient Speaker
    • C1 Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced
    • C2 Mastery or proficiency
For further information see Council of Europe: http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/
The state of the art
In September 2011 an ESF exploratory workshop took place in Zurich in order to setup a Europe-wide collaborative network. The aim was to share existing knowledge related to sign language instruction, learning and assessment and to prepare a collaborative research project. In the last few years second language learning and teaching methods have been changed as well as the examination of attained language skills. This development has led to the introduction of the CEFR and its implementation in the educational system but until now only spoken languages benefit from it. Although different innovative Sign language projects in this field are happening in the United Kingdom (http://www.bslqed.com), Switzerland (http://www.hfh.ch/gebaerdensprachdolmetschen/), Ireland (http://www.tcd.ie/slscs/cds/) or France.

The methodology used

Based on Breakthrough we tried to develop a concept that might save as the basis for SignLEF. In cooperation with deaf colleagues we worked out a concept for a demo version. Lexis, dialogues and exercises were filmed. We furthermore decided that CEFR has to be adapted to Austrian Sign Language. We tried to compare the levels in the original version with the German version of GERS (Goethe Institut), LSF and BSL QED. In a first step the common description of the levels was translated and filmed by one of the deaf colleagues.

Unfortunately we soon found out that it took us a very long time to realise the demo concept – one chapter done by each project partner – and tried to find a way to make working more efficient. Our aim was to produce teaching material, not based on written dialogues.

As the speech act list is the basis for the comparison of languages we decided that it should be the primary goal of work. We therefore determined to realise single speech acts and to shift their connection into dialogues to a later stage of work. The advantage of this strategy is that every single speech act can be looked up whether there is a sign language realisation or not. We excerpted the speech act list from Profile Deutsch (the German counterpart to CEFR), which concerns levels A1 to B2 and distributed these speech acts to the respective levels, using the examples of CEFR English and German.

A selection of 17 speech acts related to A1 was handed over to our deaf colleagues and they were asked to realise them. The realisations will be translated and later also analysed by a sign language interpreter. This is a trial for the method to be applied. If we have the impression that the most simple variants of speech acts are not produced yet, we will discuss the criteria for simplicity and then consciously produce the “easiest” variants for the first level where the realisation of the respective speech act appears. By that we want to secure a hierarchy of complexity within different variants of speech acts.

To give an example: The speech act of giving the turn of a person signing/speaking to another one can be fulfilled very simple e.g. by using please and the accompanying non-verbal behaviour – which would relate to level A1. In order to explicitly realise this speech act, one should be able to sign a sentence like Please, take your turn now! or You are the next! – which would relate to either level A2 or B1. That means that we have the possibility of producing very simple utterances which can be identified to represent a certain speech act within a given context but can also serve to represent very different speech acts within other contexts. And we have the possibility to produce utterances which explicitly represent only the speech act intended. Along this dimension we have to hierarchy different realisations of speech acts related to levels A1 to B2. In other words: When assigning speech acts realisations to levels, the grammatical-lexical complexity of the respective realisation has to be evaluated.

Parallel we started cooperation with the Department of Translation Studies at the University of Graz in order to be able to do all the translation work needed for the adaption of CEFR to and into Austrian Sign Language. Students of the Department of Translation Studies were asked to do translation work within the course of Discourse Analysis and Translation Techniques Austrian Sign Language.

The course introduces students to a range of text genres as well as specific problems of translation (metaphor, culture-specific references etc.) to allow them to further develop their research and terminology management and translation skills, text and discourse analytical skills and self-assessment skills.

First of all research work was done to get an overall view of the topic. GERS Texts were adapted to Austrian Sign Language and deaf culture whereas some texts had to be discussed in class several times. The students tried to filter he most important parts of GERS as we wanted to make the CEFR more user friendly. Chapter 1 and 3 were worked out. Chapter 2 was not taken into consideration as there are so many repetitions. Then texts were filmed and edited.

Work and results

Until now we have completed

  • an analysis of best practice sign language courses for hearing people
  • a Demo version containing the first parts of level A1 and a common project description
  • an adaption of the common level description to and into the three sign languages
  • a first draft for a webpage
  • 17 speech acts
  • two chapters of GERS to and into Austrian Sign Language

The impact or contributions to the field

SignLEF supports linguistic diversity of sign languages in the European Union and helps to improve the quality of the structures and systems involved in language teaching. The result of this should be greater respect and similar treatment for sign languages in Europe, the strengthening of users´ rights as citizens and improved access to equal opportunities.

SignLEF aims at the adaptation of the CEFR for sign languages (LIS, LSC, ÖGS) and the organisation of a respective course. Furthermore these initiatives will help sign languages to attain the same status as spoken minority languages. SignLEF’s basic aim is to promote the awareness, teaching and learning of the sign languages of each participating country.

Conclusion and planned activities

Until the end of the project we will try to

  • realise as many speech acts as possible
  • complete our translation work of GERS to and into Austrian Sign Language
  • get our webpage online
  • inform the public and especially the target groups about our project and offer them the project results
  • start new cooperation with researchers and institutions in Europe

This project has been funded with the support of the European Union and the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture (BMUKK). This publication reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission as well as the BMUKK cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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