School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies

Online Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language

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The Project

The Deaf Studies Research Unit (DSRU), in collaboration with partner organisations are working on a three year project to develop an online Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language. The project is funded by the Tertiary Education Commission through the Encouraging and Supporting Innovation (ESI) fund.

The purpose of the project is to expand access to NZSL by developing an online multimedia dictionary with about 5,000 NZSL signs. The dictionary will be available as a reference tool to a wide range of user groups in NZ and elsewhere, both within and outside the tertiary sector. Since the first Dictionary of NZSL was produced in the Deaf Studies Research Unit in 1997, sign language dictionary making has moved towards an electronic medium, which is ideally suited to the dynamic nature of sign language and interactive functionality.

The project started in 2008 and the online dictionary will be launched in July 2011.

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Project goals and objectives

This project aligns with the purpose of the NZSL Act 2006 to promote and maintain the use of New Zealand Sign Language (Part 1, Preliminary provisions, s3). New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) was made a third official language through this Act, with the purpose of protecting the language and improving the status of Deaf NZSL users. NZSL remains poorly resourced in terms of learning materials and general accessibility to the public.

The project aims to

  • apply lexicographical research to developing a multimedia online dictionary of NZSL signs
  • create a freely available reference tool for the education sector, families, individuals, and government agencies.

The project will potentially result in

  • increased awareness and learning opportunities for all New Zealanders in relation to NZSL
  • support for educational success and linguistic acknowledgement of Deaf New Zealanders
  • a resource for pre-service and in-service training of professionals working in the areas of deaf education, sign language interpreting, and sign language teaching
  • forging a connection between Victoria University of Wellington and Auckland University of Technology centres for NZSL research and teaching, and other stakeholders.

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Key stages of the project include design of a database and website user-interface, transfer and augmentation of existing dictionary content, filming and inputting of video clips, addition of supplementary grammar information, user testing and refinement.

User requirements survey
In 2008, a survey and several focus groups took place to find out what users would want from an online dictionary. There were 301 responses from the following user groups; Deaf community, NZSL teachers/tutors, NZSL learners, NZSL interpreters, Deaf students in schools, Deaf education staff, mainstream school teachers, parents and families of Deaf children and adults. Results are summarised below:

1. Four in five respondents (80.7%) favoured both video clips and drawings of signs. Video clips of signs could be shown in different views and users could like to play this in slow motion.

2. About half of respondents (49%) would search for a sign by the English word meaning, followed by 44.5% of respondents who would use all search options, 13% would search by topic area and 9 people by features of a sign. A search engine and ajax is required to assist with the search. If a sign shows synonyms, then there should be links to them.

3. More than half of respondents (54.5%) wanted all information for each sign. The priorities are ranked in order: example of sign used in NZSL sentence, meanings, synonyms, grammatical class, variation information and example of word used in English sentence.

4. Almost half of respondents (46.2%) would buy a DVD as well as use free internet access. Nearly one-fifth (18.3%) indicated they would not buy a DVD, while approximately one-third (33.2%) were uncertain. The purchase of DVD depends on price and quality. A CD-Rom was also suggested.

5. About four-fifths (82%) wanted to save and print pictures of signs from an online dictionary; only 19 respondents (6%) said no and 33 people (11%) were not sure.

6. About two-thirds (64.5%) of respondents said the extra learning materials would be good to have, if possible. Approximately one-fifth of respondents (19.3%) said it is important to have extra learning materials and 14.6% of respondents stated it was not important.

7. Respondents were asked if it is a good idea to have a way for Deaf people to give feedback online about use of signs in the dictionary. An overwhelmingly 86.4% said yes. Feedback from other groups i.e, NZSL interpreters could also be considered.

8. More than four in five people have broadband internet access (83.4%), followed by 12.6% on dial-up and nine people with no have internet. Uploading size should be quick and minimal. Users should also be able to resize the video clip.

Download the full user survey final report

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Database development

An online dictionary requires a database capable of dealing with complex relationships between signs, sign variants, glosses, usage examples, line drawings and video clips.

The ODNZSL project database uses the Freelex Dictionary Writing System, a Free and Open Software development by Dave Moskovitz of ThinkTank Consulting.

The Freelex Dictionary Writing System is a free, easy to use, web-based, multi-user, multilingual dictionary writing system. The system assists with many aspects of lexicography, including team collaboration, routine error and consistency checking, corpus searching, publishing, and progress monitoring in addition to the traditional entry management.

This software has already been used by other dictionary projects, including Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori / The Māori Language Commission's monolingual dictionary, He Pātaka Kupu and dictionaries of Hawaiian, Fula, Sgaw Karen, as well as other languages.

Freelex won the 2004 New Zealand Computerworld Excellence Award for use of IT in Government. It is distributed under the GPL version 2 license.

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Revision of existing dictionary data

Existing data from the previous publications A Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language (1998) and A Concise Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language (2002) will form the basis of the online dictionary. Each entry will be reviewed to see if it is still current or whether there have been changes to form, meaning or usage.

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Additional sign collection

Research on the lexicon and grammar of NZSL is ongoing in the DSRU. Since the production of the Concise Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language (2002), additional signs have been collected, including signs relating to politics and academic signs. Our review of existing data has also identified some sign variants which were not included in previous dictionaries.

Partners Kelston Deaf Education Centre and Van Asch Deaf Education Centre will collect signs relating to the school curriculum.

All new entries will go through a validation process before being included in the Online Dictionary.

It is beyond the scope of the current project to include signs suggested by users of the dictionary. However, it is hoped that the database will continue to be updated regularly after the launch of the online dictionary.

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Filming and inputting of video clips

Each entry in the online dictionary will include one or more video clips to show how to produce the sign, and one or more video clips showing how the sign is used in context.

Film clips will be stored in a high quality digital format and linked to the database.

Filming will begin towards the end of 2009.

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Supplementary grammar information

Usage examples

Usage examples will show how a sign is used in context. All examples are drawn from a corpus of NZSL, which consists of two sources:

(i) a 100,000-sign corpus that was glossed from 50 hours of videotaped data collected from 80 Deaf signers conversing about a variety of everyday topics;

(ii) a smaller corpus, transcribed in ELAN, comprising approximately two hours of video data clips compiled from a representative cross section of 60 signers in conversation and interviews.

The main gloss for each entry has been searched in these corpora to identify examples of authentic usage of the sign. Not all of the sentences identified are ideal for use in a learners' dictionary, but they will form the basis for example sentences as far as possible. In the Online Dictionary, each sentence will be displayed as a video clip and by gloss. Users of the Online Dictionary will be able to click on other glosses in the example sentence to be taken to the dictionary entries for those glosses.

Variation information

For the original 1998 print Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language, all sign entries were cross-validated (as recognised and accepted or not) by Deaf reference groups in three main regions of NZ. Based on this information and the findings of a recent study of sociolinguistic variation in NZSL, information about regional and age-related use of signs will be included in entries where possible. We note however that our quantitative investigation of factors in lexical variation focused on a set of only 80 concepts, thereby limiting the amount of reliable information on variation available at this time.


HamNoSys is a way of notating phonological details of a sign.

The handshape and location of each sign will be recorded in HamNoSys to enable searches on these features.

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Website development

This phase of the project will begin in July 2010.

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User testing and refinement

Partners Deaf Aotearoa New Zealand, Kelston Deaf Education Centre, Van Asch Deaf Education Centre and other user groups will be asked to test the website so that adjustments can be made before it is launched in July 2011.

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This project has been made possible by an Encouraging and Supporting Innovation (ESI) grant from the Tertiary Education Commission.

Support from the following organisations and individuals is gratefully acknowledged:

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