Introduction to Haitian Sign Language Documentation Project (LSHDoP)

Deaf Haitian man asking Deaf Haitian woman questions about her language

Deaf Haitian man asking Deaf Haitian woman questions about her language

With the support of Organization of American States (OAS), some members of the linguistics department at Gallaudet University (1 faculty member, 2 second-year MA graduate students and 1 recent graduate of the MA program) are working with members of the Deaf community in Haiti in initial (and hopefully ongoing) efforts to document their signed language. This partnership came about through the work of Sylvie Marc-Charles Weir (an employee of Gallaudet university and child of parents from Haiti) and Kate McAuliff (graduate student in the International Development department) who, with the support of the Deaf Haitian community, brought the need for documenting Haitian Sign Language (LSH) to the attention of governmental officials, specifically Gerald Oriol Jr., Secretary of State for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities. Secretary Oriol then contacted others looking for people with expertise in working on signed language research and found the Gallaudet linguistics department.

After several months of work on the project proposal, the Haitian Sign Language Documentation Project (LSHDoP for short) officially started at the end of May. LSHDoP is a short-term project which will end in September but is hopefully a sustainable start to ongoing efforts towards the documentation of signed language in Haiti.

First, before describing the activities of the project itself, a brief introduction to language documentation is in order. Language documentation is the act of representing natural instances of language in an electronic format that makes it possible to perform effective (rapid and reliable) searches of the primary data (typically in video form for signed language). Other than the obvious goal of creating a lasting record of the language in order to preserve it, one major aim of language documentation is to support further investigation of that language. Having a language recorded in a searchable format allows researchers to quickly find examples of a variety of features of that language. Another major aim is to support the development of additional resources related to that language. These resources may include dictionaries for fluent and beginning signers, instructor and student textbooks for language classes, and reference materials supporting the work of language interpreters.

A lovely quote about language documentation can be found in the preface to the book Essentials of Language Documentation (edited by Gippert, Himmelmann, & Mosel 2006): 

Language documentation is concerned with the methods, tools, and theoretical underpinnings for compiling a representative and lasting multipurpose record of a natural language or one of its varieties. It is a rapidly emerging new field in linguistics and related disciplines working with little-known speech communities. While in terms of its most recent history, language documentation has co-evolved with the increasing concern for language endangerment, it is not only of interest for work on endangered languages but for all areas of linguists and neighboring disciplines concerned with setting new standards regarding the empirical foundations of their research. Among other things, this means that the quality of primary data is carefully and constantly monitored and documented, that the interfaces between primary data and various types of analysis are made explicit and critically reviewed, and that provisions are taken to ensure the long-term preservation of primary data so that it can be used in new theoretical ventures as well as in (re-)evaluating and testing well-established theories (preface, Gippert, Himmelmann and Mosel 2006).

Basically, to understand something about language, it is quite helpful to observe everyday instances of that language in its natural habitat. So, for LSHDoP, the goals of the project are to do that along with working with the Deaf community in ensuring that members of that community are actively involved (or rather leading the efforts themselves). Deaf Haitians (both members of the project team and consultants for the data collection) should take the lead in data collection, representation and dissemination. For example, Deaf Haitians should ask other Deaf Haitians questions about their own language and be responsible for recording this interaction (both filming and transcribing). They are the main stakeholders and have the right to decide how their language is represented (e.g., Harris, Holmes and Mertens 2009).

LSHDoP has two main teams – 1 team is on the ground in Haiti and consists entirely of Deaf Haitians who are eager to work on the documentation of their signed language. The Deaf Haitian LSHDoP team works daily with Kate McAuliff who is in Haiti for the duration of the entire project. Kate serves as a liaison between the Deaf Haitian team and the Gallaudet team of researchers. Together, the two teams will work towards collecting video data (of the Deaf Haitians) and annotating the data. By August, they intend to have a basic grammatical sketch (a brief description of the structure of the language) which will be accessible in different languages: written English, signed LSH, written Kreole and written French.

References: 

Harris, R., Holmes, H.M., & Mertens, D.M. (2009). Research ethics in sign language communities. Sign Language Studies, 9(2), 104-131. 

Gippert, J., Himmelmann, N.P., & Mosel, U (Eds). (2006). Essentials of  Language Documentation, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 

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