Sign Language Grammar and Typology (SiLaGaT)




Comparative studies on languages of different language families have revealed striking differences as well as interesting (possibly universal) similarities concerning their grammatical – in particular, morphological and syntactic – structure. However, traditionally, these studies were only concerned with the comparison of grammatical phenomena across spoken languages.
Once we include sign languages in the typological picture, new research questions emerge – at least if we take for granted the by now well-established fact that sign languages are natural languages with complex grammatical structures.
First of all, we need to ask whether grammatical models that have been developed on the basis of spoken language data can also be applied to sign languages; think, for instance, of feature hierarchies and Xbar-structure. The general picture that emerges is that many of these models are in fact applicable to visual-gestural languages. While studies that test the cross-modal applicability of theoretical models often focus on a single sign language, it is also important to include, in a second step, typological comparisons in the investigation. On the one hand, we want to know whether typological classifications and generalizations that have been established on the basis of spoken language samples also hold for sign languages despite the different language modality. In case we find modality-specific patterns, we need to investigate whether these can be accounted for in a theoretical model. On the other hand, we also want to know in how far sign languages differ from each other. And even more importantly: do they differ along the same lines as spoken languages do?

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Current Research Projects

Funded projects:

Argument structure in three sign languages: typological and theoretical aspects (start February 2015)

This 4-year project, funded by the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO PR-14-15), will yield the first comprehensive overview of argument structure (AS), AS-alternations, and AS-changes in sign languages, as compared to spoken languages. The theoretical motivation is to test existing theories of AS-structure couched within the Generative Grammar framework on the data from SLs. The project will address the question whether AS is represented in the lexicon or in syntax. Three sign languages will be analyzed: Sign Language of the Netherlands, German Sign Language, and Russian Sign Language – the project thus has as strong comparative component. While studies on certain linguistic aspects of all three SLs are available, their AS has not been investigated at all. Crucially, all three SLs have a recently created corpus that can be used for the research. In addition, use will be made of elicited data.

·   Argument structure in three sign languages: typological and theoretical aspects (see above), has two PhD projects one on Sign Language of the Netherlands, one on German Sign Language, (de Lint, Oomen) and a project for a postdoc researcher (Kimmelman).

The SIGN-HUB: preserving, researching and fostering the linguistic, historical and cultural heritage of European Deaf signing communities with an integral resource (start April 2016)

This 4-year project, which is funded by the European Commission, involves ten partners from six European countries and Israel. It aims to provide the first comprehensive response to the societal and scientific challenges resulting from the general neglect of the cultural and linguistic identity of signing Deaf communities in Europe. It will provide an open digital platform with content in the following domains: (i) digital grammars of 6 sign languages, produced with a new online grammar writing tool; (ii) an interactive digital atlas of linguistic structures of the world's sign languages; (iii) online sign language assessment instruments for education and clinical intervention, and (iv) the first digital archive of life narratives by elderly signers. Taken together, these components will (a) help explore the cultural, historical and linguistic assets of Deaf signing communities, (b) advance linguistic knowledge on the natural languages of the Deaf, and (c) impact on the diagnosis of language deficits within these minorities. The project is an attempt to rescue, showcase and boost that largely unknown part of our common heritage, as well as to ultimately enhance the full participation of Deaf citizens in all spheres of public life.
At the UvA, a PhD student (Klomp) will work on domain (i), i.e. a grammar of Sign Language of the Netherlands.

Learning to use space: a study into the SL2 acquisition process of adult learners of Sign Language of the Netherlands (start March 2016)

To date, only little is known about teaching sign language to second language learners. Yet, knowledge about the acquisition process is important in order to optimize instruction for second language learners: how and in what order should specific linguistic structures be taught for optimal results? The knowledge we have about teaching spoken languages is only partially applicable, as sign languages are visual languages. The fact that instruction has to be improved is evident from the fact that students of Sign Language of the Netherland (at the University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht) generally reach CEFR level B2, instead of the desired level C1.
A crucial aspect of sign language acquisition is to learn to use space for various grammatical purposes, such as the localization of discourse referents, pronominalization, and spatial modification of certain verbs. This project focuses on the order in which second language learners acquire the spatial grammar of NGT in order to facilitate the development of adequate teaching materials which will lead to the improvement of language skills.

Completed PhD projects


Published by  ACLC

29 March 2017