The European Sign Language Centre has grown into a globally-integrated resource for sign language. The ESLC combines a global platform of signs, a network of local partners in 24 countries, eLearning platforms, and a text-to-sign tool, all of which fosters the social inclusion of the illiterate and the deaf as full citizens.
One part of the ESLC model is the Spread the Sign online platform, which opens access to various sign languages through a database of sign languages from 24 countries. Spread the Sign has quickly become the solution to the lack of a globally integrated strategy for sign languages through its simple and scalable model. Dennis’s vision is that this platform will constantly evolve just as the users of sign language and the sign languages themselves, and it will continue to be applicable and relevant to a wide range of contexts. It has linguistic applications, as it is a tool to expand vocabulary in a national sign language. This is particularly true in countries where the national sign language is not systematically collected or presented. In a pedagogical context, comparisons of signs from different countries through Spread the Sign creates and improves reflections about what a language is, how languages are constructed, and how to distinguish between language and communication. In many countries that lack material for teaching sign language, Spread the Sign offers creative possibilities to personalize sign language lessons for all education levels.
Spread the Sign is a collective enterprise that incorporates the work of local partners from 24 countries around the world. These partners include universities and deaf organizations that have an interest in taking part in this movement. Rather than the expensive two-year process that it took in the past to record an entire sign language, Spread the Sign works with these partners in their studio in Sweden to record an entire country’s sign language—on average 10,000 signs—in only two weeks. The only cost of this effort is the flight to Sweden, which is either covered by the ESLC or often by the local partners who are able to secure funding from local entities such as their ministries of education. Partners feel an incentive to take part because doing so improves access to languages for their local communities. In addition, the tool then becomes a resource in their respective organizations, university settings, and home countries. Once this language content is created, proofread and checked thoroughly for quality, the content goes live on the Spread the Sign e-learning platform and is free for all users. The local partner organization or university continuously edits the content as the local language changes.
Since the launch of the ESLC in 2009, Spread the Sign is available in 24 different sign languages. Each week the ESLC receives proposals from new universities, organizations, interpreters, linguists, government agencies, and individuals who wish to collaborate, record their national sign language, and contribute to a more accessible world for the deaf. The ESLC has also created a phone application that makes the content from Spread the Sign mobile. This application is particularly useful for interpreters, teachers, and parents who are able to teach themselves sign language and look up words quickly. ESLC continues to reduce the barriers for use of this tool, creating more ways to simplify and open access to its content. For example, Wikipedia has recently approached Dennis to use Spread the Sign content for every Wikipedia page in Sweden to complement the written text.
The ESLC has also developed e-learning platforms for particular fields that need access to clusters of signs to interact with their clients, such as medical professionals who need to learn the most commonly used medical signs. The e-learning platforms create an interactive learning space to ensure all sign language users have the tools necessary for full economic citizenship.
Although the majority of countries around the world do not recognize sign language as a minority language, Dennis sees the applications of the e-learning platforms as powerful for all countries. In 2009, Sweden recognized sign language as a minority language, which means that citizens have certain rights when it comes to access to sign language interpreting, but also the public sector has certain responsibilities to ensure this accessibility. Many public agencies fail to fulfill these duties and seek out ways to reduce costs.
Dennis envisions sign language—both signing of letters, words, and entire stories—as a transformative tool for far more than the deaf community. Signing letters, for example, can improve how children with learning disabilities communicate as they learn to speak. Signing can be useful for certain professions such as miners or air traffic controllers who work in noisy environments. In addition, sign language can transform communication between the deaf and public sector employees. Dennis sees the applications for sign language spanning far beyond communication between the deaf or hard of hearing. He uses the term “sign language user” to expand the pool of those who can fit this category.
Since Dennis and the team founded the ESLC in 2009, it coordinates 100+ volunteers in 24 countries, with the majority of their funding coming from the European Union and Swedish foundations. They plan to spread to five African countries, with 100,000 visitors per month in 2014. In the next five years, they aim to have at least 500,000 signs in their database, with establishment in 80 countries.