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A Sign of the Times for ASL

BU profs work on computerized sign dictionary


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For the hearing-impaired and their families, learning American Sign Language can be a kind of Catch-22. There are ASL dictionaries in print, but because the language lacks a written form the signs are often organized according to their nearest English translation. “You can only look up a sign in the dictionary if you already know what it means,” says Carol Neidle, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of linguistics and coordinator of the Undergraduate Linguistics Program at BU.

Neidle and Stanley Sclaroff, a professor and chair of the CAS computer science department, hope that before long it will be possible to demonstrate signs in front of a camera and have a computer look up their meaning. With a three-year, $900,000 National Science Foundation grant, the two BU professors are collaborating on computer technology that could identify a sign based on its visual properties.

The first step is establishing a comprehensive ASL video lexicon — 3,000 to 5,000 signs. Native ASL users have already logged countless hours in front of a camera at BU’s National Center for Sign Language and Gesture Resources. Neidle and Sclaroff have developed a computer program called SignStream, which displays videos of ASL signing from multiple angles for linguistic annotation.

Neidle says that the ASL look-up and search capabilities have important implications for improving education, opportunities, and access for the deaf and their families. “Ninety percent of deaf children are born into hearing families,” she says. “This would allow parents to look up a sign produced by their deaf child.”

Devin Hahn can be reached at dhahn@bu.edu.


3 Comments on A Sign of the Times for ASL

  • trading forex on 07.10.2008 at 6:58 am

    This could prove helpful for so many people around the world.

  • fx trading on 07.12.2008 at 7:37 am

    I think..

    I think that the technology has developed to such an extent that now softwares can be used to interpret all sorts of signs and symbols to make even a common man understand the meaning. This will prove useful not only for the deaf but any person who wishes to understand them.

  • jiashanshan on 01.30.2009 at 7:51 am

    a question from china

    i’d like to know how well you are getting on with this project .The chinese deaf people need this kind of dictionary badly.please tell me when and how it can be introduced to china.

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