The new Interactive World Map on display in the lobby of the Kellogg Conference Hotel invites you to use your hands. With one tap, the familiar outline of continents fills with about 30 bubbles, each containing a deaf person signing the word “all” in their native language. A man in Sri Lanka clasps his hands together, while a woman in Bulgaria wiggles her pointer finger, and a man in Uganda crosses one arm across his chest. In a matter of seconds, it showcases the incredible diversity of signs around the globe. And it can keep you busy for hours, as you scroll through the list of 100 words.

It is the product of a yearlong undertaking by the Gesture Literacy Knowledge Studio (GLKS), a Gallaudet lab housed in the Kellogg Conference Hotel. “Researchers in the ’60s and ’70s made breakthroughs in linguistics research on ASL, proving that it is a bona fide language, not merely random gestures. Given the deep roots of gesture in the historical evolution of sign languages, we are examining the confluence of gestural, phonological and semantic elements in signs through a Deaf lens at the lab,” GLKS Director Dr. Patrick Boudreault says.

This map is a way to visualize the linguistic commonalities across different sign languages and their proximity to gestural roots, explains Boudreault, who is featured on the map as a native user of Langue des Signes Québécoise. “In other words, it’s etymology,” says research specialist, Cem Barutcu, G-’23, a native of Istanbul. He is responsible for managing the nearly 3,000 videos — so far — that GLKS recorded for this project, including ones of himself using Turkish Sign Language.

All of the Deaf signers featured in this unique project have been filmed on the Gallaudet campus and have ties to the university as a student, faculty member, staff member, or visitor. This was important to GLKS founder Dr. Benjamin Bahan, ’79, who retired last year, because he wanted the map to highlight Gallaudet’s importance as a hub of global deaf activity, says GLKS faculty fellow Dr. Gaurav Mathur, an Associate Professor of Linguistics. “He really emphasized that the purpose of the map is to show how many sign languages have touched Gallaudet from around the world,” Mathur says. As more people’s paths bring them to campus, GLKS hopes to highlight additional languages.

Man stands by large screen featuring a map. Four large bubbles are in the center of the screen, each showing a person signing.
GLKS Director Dr. Patrick Boudreault demonstrates some of the features of the Interactive World Map now on display in the Kellogg Conference Hotel lobby.

The 100 words on the map were drawn from former faculty member James Woodward’s adapted version of the Swadesh list, a tool used to facilitate cross-linguistic comparison. A note on the map acknowledges that sign variations are common even within a single language, but for display purposes, there is just one sign per word.

Although GLKS is lucky to have its own professional studio for filming, Boudreault says that editing the videos proved challenging, particularly synchronizing the timing of the video loops. Ensuring that each sign started and ended simultaneously on the map was a tedious yet ultimately rewarding task, he adds.

GLKS unveiled an early version of the map at Homecoming last fall, and more than 50 attendees had a chance to test it out. Boudreault says they often noticed many of the same patterns, such as how sign languages express “animal.” “Most countries use the act of walking with front hands forward with claws,” he says, noting that American Sign Language is an outlier for signing it in a more abstract way.

To probe this issue, GLKS plans to study how people perceive sign language. In particular, the team would also like to explore how iconicity has led to some categories of signs that are more standardized than others. For example, across multiple sign languages, “drink” is much more similar than signs for “brother” or “sister.” Overall, sign languages tend to have more in common with one another than spoken languages do, but there is still so much to learn about how they developed, branched off, and influenced each other over time. “The map project helps us understand the connections,” Mathur says.

Users can easily compare neighboring countries’ signs by zooming in on a continent for a larger view. They can also tap on a specific country to learn its sign language recognition status based on information from the World Federation of the Deaf. “When I see everything on there, it’s amazing,” Mathur says. Guests at the hotel who have seen the map have expressed their enthusiasm for learning about the diversity of sign languages and their unique characteristics.

The goal is to make the map available to a wider audience by installing it in other venues as well as online. GLKS has been in contact with Planet Word, a museum in Washington, D.C., about how this tool can build on the maps featured in its exhibits. “We want to educate people,” says Boudreault, who hopes that this work will increase interest in gesture and its close relationship to sign language. “Even though we process sign language and gesture in the brain differently, we see strong historical connections between them.”

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