For spoken languages, there are many resources that contain information about how often words are used, which words rhyme and other information not found in a dictionary. But until recently, there was no such thing for sign languages.
Our team of deaf and hearing scientists worked with a group of software engineers to create the ASL-LEX database that anyone can use for free. We cataloged information on nearly 3,000 signs and built a visual, searchable and interactive database that allows scientists and linguists to work with ASL in entirely new ways.
Mental maps of languageTo communicate in any language, people must search their mental lexicon – the words or signs that they use and recognize – to perceive or produce the right vocabulary item. How quickly and efficiently they do this depends on how their lexicon is organized in their mind. The database our team built is meant to represent a mental lexicon and is allowing us to examine how signs are organized in the human mind.
For example, if you looked up “tease” in the database, you would learn that this sign is used quite frequently in ASL. A person trying to sign “tease” might think of it more quickly than a rare sign like “linguistics.” ASL-LEX also shows that “tease” is visually similar to – and, in a visual way, rhymes with – other signs, like “ruin.” These related signs might also come to mind while a person thinks of “tease.” Researchers believe this process of calling up similar words or signs helps people speak or sign faster.
Our goals were to first catalog the information that people might use to organize their mental lexicons and then to illustrate that information visually using a network map.