The International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies (iSLanDS) is a unique hub for the study of sign languages and deaf studies. We combine cutting-edge research with outputs and project activities that contribute to the empowerment of deaf communities. We have been part of UCLan since 2006.
Our mission is:
We study dozens of diverse sign languages and deaf communities, and use our research to teach ground-breaking theoretical and applied courses. Much of our work focuses on developing countries.
Our international academic team conducts research and teaching in sign linguistics and deaf studies on a global scale. Most of our staff, students and collaborators are deaf, and come from countries such as Germany, India, Turkey, Japan and the USA.
International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies
Harrington Building, HA212
University of Central Lancashire
Fax: +44 (0)1772-894933
The iSLanDS Institute is putting endangered sign languages “on the map” thanks to collaboration with UNESCO and the Foundation for Endangered Languages, resulting in the unprecedented assessment of vitality levels for sign languages and their placement in a dedicated atlas. This work, which promotes the importance of protecting these languages, was inspired by a three-year European Science Foundation project on sign languages in village communities.
Most sign languages in the world are only marginally described or even entirely unknown. The iSLanDS Institute specialises in extensive documentation of sign languages, particularly in developing countries.
Currently, iSLanDS scholars are studying the semantic fields of colours, numbers and kinship in the lexicons of over 30 sign languages, including village sign languages. The involvement of deaf participants, who may not have a background in linguistics, is a key component of our research. Therefore, we make data collection materials accessible in deaf-friendly formats such as International Sign and plain English. All research and publications from our Sign Language Typology research group have input from deaf community members. There are now four volumes in our Sign Language Typology series, and the fifth book, Semantic Fields in Sign Languages, is due to be released in 2014.
We aim to develop academic skills for deaf students, in particular their literacy which will contribute to their employability. Currently, we are undertaking a collaborative pilot project in this area which concentrates on the peer-to-peer teaching of deaf literacy, and is funded by the Education and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Department for International Development (DFID). This research is allowing us to investigate new ways of teaching literacy to deaf learners, alongside project partners at Lancaster University and in India, Uganda and Ghana.
This project pilots a social innovation by translating some of the findings of MULTISIGN, our ERC-funded project on sign multilingualism, into an online portal that facilitates signed transnational communication by deaf people and provides activities that increase metalinguistic awareness about the multilingual use of sign languages. We are using our MULTISIGN analyses by shaping them into a resource with educational units that support upskilling and remote signed communication. The portal, with multilingual online work spaces and a sign-to-sign-translation tool, allows signers from developed and developing countries to share materials and expertise.
The iSLanDS Institute is structured to form a network of research hubs around the world. Our ‘mother’ hub is at UCLan, with other hubs that operate in India and Indonesia.
Our research hubs engage in capacity-building activities to empower deaf communities in developing countries. These communities are traditionally at a substantial disadvantage in terms of education and employment, and one of our key objectives is to connect with them toward building sustainable, deaf-led initiatives using our applied work and research in the areas of sign language typology, sign multilingualism, deaf literacy, and sign language endangerment. We especially support South-South co-operation amongst our hubs.
Empowering deaf communities through our research and teaching activities is at the heart of what we do at the iSLanDS Institute. Here, we share some examples of the impact we have had on deaf communities around the world.
In India, Turkey and Jordan, we have worked with deaf people to set up sign language courses. Our work in India and Turkey has been underway for several years, and deaf people in these countries have become more aware of their own sign languages, developing the skills and confidence necessary to teach their languages.
In India and Turkey there is now training for sign language interpreters, which have a positive effect on the lives of deaf people. This training would not be possible without deaf sign language experts. We continue to support teaching in Jordan, and we are also now working with the Indonesian deaf community in this area.
In 2010 we set up a BA course in India. So far, over 50 students from India, China, Nepal, Uganda and Burundi have passed their BA. They are among the first deaf people in their countries to get a BA-level qualification. We also set up a foundation-level course to prepare deaf people for entry into the BA course.
The iSLanDS Institute believes that technology has the power to open doors to the acquisition of reading and writing skills by deaf people. In 2008, we set up the English Learning Platform (ELP), an online resource for teaching English through sign language and the use of interactive materials.
Through the ELP, deaf Indian students were able to learn English in their own sign language, often for the first time. Our deaf-led research (Sahasrabudhe 2011, Denmark 2013) has shown that platforms like the ELP are both effective and welcomed by deaf people.
Alongside research on linguistics and deaf studies, we work with deaf organisations and deaf community leaders to share information and skills, and to promote links between deaf communities in different countries. For example, in 2012 we hosted a six-week visit by three deaf people from Indonesia, Jordan and Japan, with trips to deaf organisations in London, Manchester and Lancashire.
One of the goals of the EuroBABEL project was to promote the documentation of rural sign languages around the world, and to raise awareness of the contribution that these sign languages make to our understanding of linguistic diversity. Many rural sign languages are critically endangered, and in some cases their users have a low opinion of their own sign language (Lanesman 2013). Through research, it is possible to raise the profile and prestige of rural sign languages.
Our endangered sign languages work aims to add data about these languages to UNESCO’s Atlas of Endangered Languages for the first time. Little has been written about the causes of sign language endangerment, and our project is the first that attempts to assess the degree to which different sign languages are endangered.
iSLanDS runs the SIGN conference series, an international conference on sign linguistics and deaf studies. Unlike most other international conferences, presentations at SIGN are all given in sign language. This is an important development for deaf academics and deaf communities alike, as it exemplifies the use of signed languages at an international academic level, and validates the right of deaf and hearing people to present in sign language.
Our projects, especially those on sign multilingualism and sign language typology, rely on the expertise of deaf researchers, collaborators and participants. In many cases this experience allows these deaf individuals to gain valuable skills and knowledge which they can use to build capacity and become role models within their own deaf communities.
Since we started, we have also supported deaf academics in their studies at the iSLanDS Institute. Seven deaf students, mostly from developing countries, have now studied for an MA or PhD at iSLanDS. On returning home, several have become leading figures nationally and internationally.
Our Previous Projects
We will soon add more information here about our impact. In the meantime, for more information about our impact, feel free to contact us.
Here is a selection of our main publications and outputs
Aboh, E., Pfau, R. & Zeshan, U. (2006) When a wh-word is not a wh-word: The case of Indian Sign Language. In Singh, R., and Bhattacharya, T. (eds.) The Yearbook of South Asian Languages and Linguistics 2005. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 11-43.
Dikyuva, H. & Zeshan, U. (2008) Turk Isaret Dili - Birinci Duzey. [Turkish Sign Language - Level One]. Nijmegen: Ishara Press.
Hendriks, B. & Zeshan, U. (2009) Sign Languages in the Arab World. In Versteegh, K., et al. (eds.): Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics (EALL). Leiden: Brill.
Panda, S. & Zeshan, U. (2011) Reciprocal Constructions in Indo-Pakistani Sign Language. In Evans, N., Gaby, A., Levinson, S.C. & Majid, A. (eds.) Reciprocals and Semantic Typology. Typological Studies in Language Series. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 91-114.
Perniss, P. & Zeshan, U. (eds.) (2008) Possessive and Existential Constructions in Sign Languages. Sign Language Typology Series No. 2. Nijmegen: Ishara Press.
Sagara, K. & Zeshan, U. (forthc.) Semantic Fields in Sign Languages. Sign Language Typology Series No. 5. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press.
Schwager, W. & Zeshan, U. (2008) Word classes in sign languages – Criteria and classifications. In Ansaldo, U., Don, J. & Pfau, R. (eds.) Parts of Speech: Descriptive tools, theoretical constructs. Special Issue of Studies in Language 32(3):509–545.
Zeshan, U. (2006) Sign languages of the world. In Brown, K. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd edition. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Zeshan, U. (ed.) (2006) Interrogative and Negative Constructions in Sign Languages. Sign Language Typology Series No. 1. Nijmegen: Ishara Press.
Zeshan, U. (2007) The ethics of documenting sign languages in village communities. Proceedings of the Conference on Language Documentation and Linguistic Theory, 7-8 December 2007, SOAS, London.
Zeshan, U. (2007) Roots, leaves and branches – The typology of sign languages. In Quadros, R.M. de (ed.) Sign Languages: Spinning and unravelling the past, present and future. Forty five papers and three posters from the 9° Theoretical Issues In Sign Language Research Conference, Florianopolis, Brazil, December 2006. Petropolis: Editoria Arara Azul.
Zeshan, U. (2010) Village sign languages - A commentary. In Napoli. D.J. & Mathur, G. (eds.) Deaf Around the World: The impact of language. Oxford University Press, 221-230.
Zeshan, U. & de Vos, C. (eds.) (2012) Sign Languages in Village Communities: Anthropological and linguistic insights. Sign Language Typology Series No. 4. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton & Nijmegen: Ishara Press.
Zeshan, U. & Dikyuva, H. (forthc.) Documentation of endangered sign languages: The case of Mardin Sign Language. In Jones, M. & Ogilvie, S. (eds.) Keeping Languages Alive: Documentation, pedagogy and revitalization. Cambridge a.o.: CUP.
Zeshan, U., Escobedo Delgado, C.E., Dikyuva, H., Panda, S. & De Vos, C. (forthc.) Cardinal numerals in village sign languages: Approaching cross-modal typology. Linguistic Typology.
Palfreyman, Nicholas Barrie (in press) Form, function, and the grammaticalisation of completive markers in the sign language varieties of Solo and Makassar. NUSA: Linguistic studies of languages in and around Indonesia, vol. 55.
SIGN is a conference series especially for sign language users, which aims to broaden the international research base in sign language linguistics and deaf studies, and enable a worldwide community of Deaf academics to come together at a conference that they regard as their own. All presentations are given in International Sign or the host country’s sign language.
Coordinated by iSLanDS, SIGN began as a workshop called Cross-linguistic Sign Language Research (CLSLR) in 2006 at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. This was repeated in Nijmegen in 2007 and at UCLan in 2008, where the series was renamed SIGN. In 2009, SIGN4 was held in India, followed by SIGN5 in Turkey (2011) and SIGN6 in Goa (2013). SIGN7 took place in China from 12th-15th October 2014
The iSLanDS Seminar Series is held in our lab on Wednesdays during term time. This is a forum for visiting academics to share research findings on sign languages and deaf studies, and allow postgraduates to test their ideas and practise presenting. Visitors have included Professor Amy Wilson (pictured) on deaf communities in developing countries; Luigi Lerose on deixis and anaphora in Italian Sign Language; and Gail Caudrelier on British Sign Language syntax.
Presentations are ~45 minutes, followed by questions and discussion. All are welcome to join us; typically we have 10-15 people in attendance. If you would like to present, please contact co-ordinator Nick Palfreyman. Interpreters are usually available, but please check in advance to make sure. For details about the latest programme, please check our blog.
Name: Eilidh Rose McEwan
Research Topic: ‘Agency in Deaf Communities in the Global South’
Dates of PhD: July 2017 – July 2020
Description: My research is looking at deaf agency within various capacity-building projects in the Global South, including their development, implementation, and how the participation of deaf communities affects subjective experiences of agency. This investigation is within the context of two overarching iSLanDS projects: Peer to Peer Deaf Multiliteracies and a study called Patterns of Variation, which focuses on deaf communities in Indonesia.
Name: Lin Hao
Research topic: Interrogatives in Chinese Sign Language
Dates of study visit: September 2014 - January 2015
Description: My scope of research covers English language teaching, lexicography and sign languages and linguistics. My thesis mainly discusses the interrogatives of Chinese Sign Language (CSL). At iSLanDS, I conducted preliminary research into comparisons of interrogatives in CSL and British Sign Language (BSL). During my stay here, Ulrike Zeshan and Nick Palfreyman supervised me; they also offered me many valuable suggestions as did other generous colleagues at iSLanDS, to whom I’d like to extend my deepest appreciation.
Name: Makoto Iwayama
Research topic: Support for deaf people in the workplace
Dates of study visit: March 2014 - March 2015
Description: I am currently a PhD student at the University of Kagoshima, Japan, where I am researching how support for deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) people within the work place in Japan should be carried out in the future. In Japan we do not have access to the same kind of support structure that is in place for deaf and HoH people in the UK, as the Japanese government do not offer funding such as Access to Work that we can call on for our support needs. Therefore, as a visiting researcher here at iSLanDS, I am investigating this issue in more depth.
Rita Fan Huhua, PhD student for our deaf literacy project
Eilidh Rose McEwan is a PhD student for our deaf multiliteracies project.
Our associates and partners for the project ‘Multilingual behaviours in sign language users’ (funded by the European Research Council) include:
The iSLanDS Institute works in partnership with a number of national and international organisations. We have both academic partners and NGO partners.
Ankara University, Turkey is working with iSLanDS on the project on Multilingual Behaviour in Sign Language Users (Multisign), funded by the European Research Council.
The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, the Netherlands works with the iSLanDS Institute on the Sign Language Typology project as well as the Multisign project, and is where the Sign Language Typology Research Group originated.
The National Institute of Speech and Hearing (NISH), in Trivandrum, Kerala, India, is an academic partner in our Multisign project and works with us on deaf literacy and applied sign linguistics initiatives.
Ishara Foundation is a Mumbai-based Indian trust devoted to improving the education of Deaf students in India at all levels, including the tertiary level. A partner in the UKIERI project, Ishara is run mainly by Deaf people and provides programmes in a culturally and linguistically Deaf environment.
The University of the West Indies (UWI), the oldest fully regional institution of higher learning in the Commonwealth Caribbean, has a Jamaican Language Unit in its Department of Language, Linguistics and Philosophy, which works in partnership with the iSLanDS Institute on the documentation of Country Sign.
British Deaf Association (BDA) – the largest Deaf organisation in the UK, run by and for the British Sign Language (BSL) community. The BDA promotes the use of BSL in education and public life and is a partner in the Distance Education for Sign Language Users project.
Deaf Empowerment Foundation (DEF) – a group of academics aiming to provide university-level education to the many talented deaf people in developing countries. iSLanDS staff Zeshan and Panda are board members of this Foundation. One of the areas of collaboration is Ishara Press, the publishing division of the DEF.