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Have you ever seen deaf people signing and wondered where this language came from? Was it invented? Is it English? Is it universally understood by deaf people the world over?

American Sign Language (ASL) is not an invented language. It is a natural, living language, unrelated to English in its grammar. It’s not universal, but just as Spanish and Portuguese are related, ASL has relatives in the family of signed languages. The closest living relative to ASL is not British Sign Language — BSL and ASL are not mutually comprehensible — but French Sign Language, or Langue des Signes Française (LSF).
In 2003 two students in UNM's Department of Linguistics Signed Language Interpreting Program began working with faculty on honors projects to study these historical connections between ASL and LSF. Rebecca Varoz accompanied UNM Professor Dr. Phyllis Wilcox to Paris, France to study modern LSF. Under a research project funded by UNM’s Research Allocations Committee and with honors funds from the College of Arts and Sciences, they collected language data from deaf, native users of LSF.

Laurel Page worked on a project in the department’s video laboratory designed to make it easier for students and faculty to study the historical connections between ASL and LSF. The problem was finding a way to search for and compare several thousand signs from their images in old documents. The solution was to construct a database of images of each sign. "For the database, I scanned in pictures of old ASL and pictures of LSF. Then each sign was coded by using the four parameters of sign (shape, location, movement and palm orientation) as guides."
Laurel didn’t stop there. She also used computer multimedia technology to capture movies of ASL signers filmed in 1913 telling stories, transferring them to digital video. Then, Laurel added text captions to the digital video to coincide with the signs. Now, instead of time-consuming searches for a particular sign on a videotape, students and faculty can simply type in a word and the computer instantly finds the ASL sign.

"Starting this database was a wonderful learning experience," says Laurel. "I hope to continue to work on both the database and the video as well as learning more about old ASL and LSF."

Rebecca says her trip to Paris and continuing honors study will be invaluable when she graduates and enters the job market. "This experience is something I will never forget. I have gained better knowledge about the deaf world. I am grateful because this will enhance my skills in the interpreting profession."