Modern Languages & Linguistics - iSLanDS


SIGNSPACE is shorthand for an ISLanDS project entitled ‘Multilingual work spaces for sign language users: An online portal driving social innovation’. Funded by the European Research Council (ERC) as a proof of concept project, it is a follow-up to ‘Multilingual behaviour in sign language users’ (MULTISIGN). The MULTISIGN team found that signers have impressive abilities to communicate across language boundaries. SIGNSPACE gives signers the chance to exploit and increase this ability by translating MULTISIGN findings into an innovative and practical online portal for transnational signed communication.

The portal

More than 60 deaf people from across 25 countries contributed to the development of the SIGNSPACE portal with iSLanDS and award-winning Hungarian company Dolphio Technologies. It features activities to help signers build meta-linguistic awareness, use sign languages bilingually and multilingually, and interact remotely with people who use different sign languages, with an integrated tool for sign-to-sign-translation.

Prof Ulrike Zeshan, principal investigator for SIGNSPACE, explained how SIGNSPACE facilitates cooperation, saying: “Our portal will especially benefit deaf communities who have had few opportunities for international contact in the past. They’ll be able to converse with experienced international deaf colleagues, draw from their knowledge, share resources and strengthen their capacity for activism, for example to lobby their local government bodies for access to education and sign language recognition”.


Java workshop

In May 2017, a three-day workshop was held in Bekasi, West Java, to test the effectiveness of materials that had been created for SIGNSPACE. There were 16 deaf Indonesian participants who not only offered valuable feedback, but were also able to improve their skills in communicating with people who use other sign languages.

Research fellow Nick Palfreyman presented sessions on deaf identity, sign language, and deaf stories, lives, spaces and history. Meanwhile, the Indonesian hub coordinator Muhammad Isnaini showed participants how to organise effectively to advance the rights of deaf Indonesians.

Two participants, Firda and Hani, examine the SIGNSPACE materials at the Java collaboratory.

Two participants, Firda and Hani, examine the SIGNSPACE materials at the Java workshop.

India workshop

The following month the team set off to India for another two-day workshop with 30 participants to test and create training materials.

Feedback was provided on the first day and on the second day, smaller groups worked together to assemble further materials to add to the portal.

Participants at the SIGNSPACE collaboratory in India.

Participants at the SIGNSPACE workshop in India.

“This workshop focussed on meta-linguistic competences for communication across different sign languages. I am grateful to our partners in Vadodara, Mook Badhir Mandal and Ishara Foundation, for hosting this workshop,” commented iSLanDS director Prof Ulrike Zeshan.

Nicaragua workshop

In November, the third SIGNSPACE workshop was held with 17 deaf participants in Managua, Nicaragua. They tested the portal and discussed plans to increase the capacity of Nicaragua’s deaf community with local coordinator Ivonne Morales Ruiz, a primary school teacher in Managua who is also active in the Nicaraguan Deaf Association (ANSNIC). She was assisted by Marie Coppola, a linguistic psychology professor at the University of Connecticut.

They tested four of the activities on the Moodle pages of the SIGNSPACE portal. Two of these introduce the concept of communication breakdowns, and the other two relate to numbers and fingerspelling in different sign languages.

Participants at the SIGNSPACE collaboratory in Nicaragua.

Participants at the SIGNSPACE workshop in Nicaragua.

Ms Morales Ruiz said the participants appreciated the value of being able to use the online tools to communicate with signers from other countries. She added: “Most of them have not travelled outside Nicaragua, and for many of them even the visit to Managua was unusual.”

Professor Coppola commented: “This was a terrific opportunity for deaf people from different cities in Nicaragua, outside the area around Managua, to meet each other, share ideas, and learn from each other’s experiences. They all responded very enthusiastically, and were pleased to also have the chance to discuss community development and capacity building”.

Follow the journey on the iSLanDS blog.