Basic university studies in Finnish Sign Language were launched at the University of Jyväskylä in 1992. Along with the professorship established for sign languages in 2004, the study provision was extended to the master’s level.
The Sign Language Centre (SLC), which carries out research and education activities for sign languages, opened in 2010. It is naturally based in the Department of Language and Communication Studies, University of Jyväskylä.
“The establishment of the SLC provided a more stable position for sign language research and education in Finland in general,” Professor Tommi Jantunen states. “The framework provided by the Centre has been crucial, for example, for launching new research and training projects concerning sign language. These, then again, have directly contributed to the improved position of sign language in society.”
The SLC has been assigned with a demanding national task: to carry out, develop and coordinate sign language research and higher education together with other actors in the field across the country. The centre’s operation is based on a specific national responsibility the Ministry of Education has granted to the University.
The centre is the main place for sign language education and research in Finland. Students are admitted to the integrated bachelor’s and master’s degree programme every other year, and annually for the master’s degree programme. Until now, the centre has awarded more than forty master’s degrees and three doctoral dissertations. At the moment, there are seven doctoral researchers.
Brain imaging as a new research innovation
The main focus areas in the Sign Language Centre’s research include basic research into linguistic structures and use as well as research related to language acquisition and learning, and bi- and multilingualism.
“Sign language research has been continuously expanding,” Jantunen points out, “and one key result of this can be seen in that it has changed our views on the diversity of the phenomenon of language: language is more than just spoken units.”
In recent years, various technologies have started to be used in sign language research as well. This has resulted the creation of several different research infrastructures. In language acquisition research, for example, online materials for working with children have been developed.
In order to support basic research, corpus of the sign languages used in Finland is also being compiled. This includes a collection of computer-readable video material.
The newest field in sign language research is brain imaging, which is being pursued in collaboration with Jyväskylä Centre for Interdisciplinary Brain Research.
Active enhancement of international networks
“The international dimension and cooperation have always been important in sign language research,” Tommi Jantunen says. “This is because sign languages, as minority languages, have only a small number of native users and therefore rather limited research resources as well.”
International networks bring synergy benefits for research. The current research at the Sign Language Centre represents the global forefront in this field.
The first part of the corpus work – the Corpus of Finnish Sign Language – was completed in May 2019. It has already contributed to the research and teaching of Finnish Sign Language.
Finland-Swedish Sign Language to get its own corpus
Starting in 2021, the centre has concentrated on developing a corpus for Finland-Swedish Sign Language.
“It is of primary importance to build a corpus also for Finland-Swedish Sign Language. We aim to publish it at the end of 2024,” Project Researcher Juhana Salonen says. “The corpus will serve the development of research and teaching for Finland-Swedish Sign Language as well, which will help revive the endangered language and empower its users in the long run.”
The corpus is being compiled in cooperation with the user community of Finland-Swedish Sign Language as well as with the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Association of the Deaf.
Through its high-quality teaching and research, the SLC has provided students a real chance to develop language awareness of their mother tongue using a metalinguistic approach, since many of them have never been taught in their mother tongue before entering university. In addition, studying a sign language as a foreign language has broadened the conception of language.
The SLC’s 30th anniversary will be celebrated in association with the final seminar of the VIKKE subproject in autumn 2023.
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