Imprimir Republish


The ABC of speaking with the hands

For the first time in Brazil, the language of the deaf and dumb is set out in a dictionary

SILVANA MARQUESNew prospects of communication and assimilation for the hearing -impaired have been opened with the documentation and precise ordering of the Brazilian Sign Language (Libras), in a work that took a team of 14 researchers from the Cognitive Experimental Neuropsycholinguistic Laboratory of the Institute of Psychology of the University of São Paulo (IP-USP), coordinated by Prof. Dr. Fernando César Capovilla, six years to finish. The 2 million deaf people and the 6.8 million people that are hearing-impaired in Brazil, as well as professionals in the various fields that work with them, have, in the two volumes of the Illustrated Trilingual Encyclopedic Dictionary of Brazilian Sign Language, recently brought out by the University of São Paulo publishing house (Edusp) with the support of FAPESP, a teaching and learning tool for direct visual sign-writing until then unpublished in Brazil.

Since the start of the project, FAPESP has financed the project’s researchers with scientific initiation, masters, doctoral and postdoctoral grants. Sign-writing is a system developed in the United States in the 70’s by which the deaf write letters or cards and it is used around the world. According to Capovilla, the fact that the dictionary project has involved the public sector, through funding from FAPESP, together with the involvement of a university, and the third sector, through the Vitae Foundation, and the private sector, through Brasil Telecom, shows how necessary the union and cooperation between the hearers and the deaf was in bringing about this important teaching instrument for the community of the hearing-impaired.

“The average reading level of the 2 million deaf in the country is that of a nine-year-old child, in the third grade of basic education. Much of this problem lies in the fact that they had no teaching material to be taught how to read and write, and there was no standardization of the use of signs, which were very often different, depending on who taught them. The dictionary has resolved this problem”, points out the project coordinator.

Presented by the neurologist Oliver Sacks, one of the most widely acknowledged specialists in cognitive science in the world, the dictionary is a bulky work in all senses: the two volumes contain 9,500 entries, 1,620 pages and weighs 6.5 kg. Sacks, the author of the book Seeing Voices: a Journey through the World of the Deaf, emphasizes the importance of the deaf creating their own language and the effective contribution made by the libras dictionary – which has, like all other sign-language books in the world, its own grammar and glossary.

The method employed in the work was quite arduous and involved the group of researchers going back and forth countless times to and from the National Federation for the Education and Assimilation of the Deaf (Feneis in the Portuguese acronym). The task of collaboration between hearers and voluntary informants and the deaf that came up with their sign language was constant. “At each of the meetings, the hearing researchers took a set of signs to the deaf. These signs were debated by the deaf until they arrived at most precise way of expressing each of them. We then returned to the laboratory to convert the signs intosign-writing, through illustrations, with semantic definitions, grammatical classifications. And then we met again for them to give us their opinion and, if necessary, we made the suggested alterations”, tells Capovilla.

The dictionary itemizes for the first time, with a wealth of detail such as the movement of the palm of the hands, the position of the shoulders and movements, the signs through which the deaf communicate and manage to express the immense range of emotions and human thoughts. “Our dictionary has this merit: it has assembled for the first time pictographic illustrations of Brazilian sign language, which we represented through illustrations of the physical appearance of the signs, with a full description in Portuguese of the shape of the hand, the position of the palm, the movement, and the facial expression involved. It also involved writing down the signs using this system, with the spelling called sign-writing.

I wrote a chapter jointly with the inventor of this system in the 70’s, who was very happy to see that sign-writing was being used for the first time to document a completely new language, libras”, points out the professor. The writing system is like the International Phonetic Alphabet in that it enables the reader to pronounce or sign the word, even if he doesn’t know what it means. Just as hearers can recreate the sound using the Phonetic Alphabet, the deaf can recreate the sign with sign-writing .

But this is not the dictionary’s only innovation. As the very title suggests, the two volumes are also concerned with what is nowadays the most spoken language in the world, namely English. There are entries in English and in Portuguese in the main body of the dictionary, followed by illustrations above and text below. The text accompanying the illustrations is in Portuguese and in English, and also gives information such as lexicological definitions, grammatical definitions and examples.

There is also the English-Portuguese thesaurus, listing the 9,500 entries in both languages. The reader looks up a word in either language and then looks for the corresponding sign in the main body of the dictionary. This enables English-speaking deaf people to communicate with Brazilian deaf people, and the latter to read in English based on signs. “This part has contributed to the international success of the dictionary, which has been exported to various countries around the world since the first 5,000-copy edition, which has been practically sold out”, says Capovilla.

Of course that introducing readers and professionals associated with the discipline to such rich material requires careful presentation. This is done in the first three chapters of the dictionary. The introduction to a format of the work shows how to obtain detailed information on the composition of the hand in forming the signs, their meaning, the pragmatic use of the signs in communicating,and how to do direct visual writing. The digital spelling of letters and numbers in libras and how to read and write the signs are also topics examined and explained.

The dictionary has a semantic index, listing the main thematic categories of all the signs. This part of the work enables the sign language to be taught and learnt by semantic topic. “Let us suppose that I wanted to give a class by subject: economics and finance, arts and culture, professions and work. In the dictionary I have all the signs that have to do with the professions and professionals, all indexed, labor procedures, what the professions are like and what the professionals do. It is the same way as with other topics, and this unquestionably makes teaching easier”, says the professor and psychologist.

The following chapters, on deaf education and technology, discuss the different teaching approaches to the problem of the lack of hearing – oralism , full communication and bilingualism – questioning the bases on which they are erected and setting out the pros and contras of each. Cochlear implants, one of the techniques used to turn the deaf into hearers and speakers, derived from oral execution, and the computerized sign systems deriving from bilingualism, are also examined.

Proposing to escape from “audiocentric” rules, the dictionary will soon be published in CD-Rom format, helping the deaf to find the information they need through systems other than alphabetical order, which essentially used by hearers and by hard copy dictionaries of sign language the world over. According to Capovilla, studying deaf people includes how the cognitive architecture is processed, how cognition is structured in the absence of hearing information. He defends vehemently that deaf children should read and write alphabetically after they have learnt sign language. “First they learn sign language because without it they have no language. If a deaf child is not immersed in signs, this will affect the organization of the brain, things will become very tangible.

When we move onto sign language we note extraordinary abstraction, deaf people are capable of abstraction, there is poetry and theater”, points out the project coordinator. He says that deaf children benefit a great deal from the publication of the dictionary, because if they see a sign and they don’t know what it means, they just have to look at the illustration. The dictionary begins teaching signs to children as from the age of a year and half, teaching them to read and write first in libras, only then teaching them the written language.

“Learning sign language from the tenderest of ages, with everybody in the school engaged in sign language (which should be special, just for deaf people), helps when learning to read and write, in other words, in Portuguese, but always with sign language as their native language. Children think in signs and then they learn to read and write in Portuguese forming a bridge between the two languages. Sign writing, a system of direct visual written reading, is based on signs and for this reason it develops children’s cognition helping them read and write better”, explains Capovilla. In his opinion, the idea that a deaf child should speak is wrong, because there are very few deaf people that go through oralism manage to articulate intelligibly. Of these, still fewer articulate words normally, since they feel embarrassed. They are confined to lip reading in the world of normal hearers. But only 20% of sounds arevisible and capable of being interpreted by deaf people.

“This dictionary, documenting sign language for the first time, restores integration with society to the deaf; it enables them to educate their children, learning to read directly in signs, as of less than two years of age, in Portuguese and English. And Brazilianness is the best return that universities can offer to national culture, to society, so that we can share a different Brazil”, emphasizes Capovilla. He adds: “FAPESP is very open to social projects. If we publish in Portuguese and we solve the problem of the deaf in Brazil, this is very important, because we have enormous lacks”, adds the researcher.