1. Normative Data and Assessment Tools for British Sign Language

The aim of this crossgroup theme is to collect normative data about BSL signs and to use these data to develop assessment tools for BSL. This will help us to create a thorough description of the vocabulary and grammar of BSL. Language assessments (e.g. for spoken languages like English) are typically used for children and adults with speech impairments or language learning problems, or in education to monitor language progress. There are many assessments for English that are available. They are based on data about typical English-speaking children/adults - i.e. native speakers of English with no language difficulties. This group is 'the norm' to which others are compared.

Establishing ‘the norm’ for BSL is not as simple as it is for spoken languages, since most BSL signers (90-95%) are not native signers (for more on this, see Deaf Individual and the Community strand).  So the collection of normative data (information about BSL signs from many different signers from many different backgrounds) is quite important to help establish norms in BSL.

We have collected an initial set of normative data on familiarity, iconicity, and age of acquisition of a set of 300 BSL signs (Vinson, Cormier, Denmark, Schembri, Vigliocco 2008). For familiarity, we wanted to know how how often the typical BSL signer sees a given sign. The signs in our set that were rated as highest in familiarity were WORK and EAT; the signs rated as lowest in familiarity were BASINGSTOKE (a town southwest of London) and a regional sign for ADDRESS. For iconicity, we were interested in how much a given sign looks like what it means, to a typical BSL user. The signs rated as most iconic were CAMERA and EAT; the signs rated as lowest in iconicity were ADDRESS and a regional sign for PEOPLE. For age of acquisition, we were interested in what age signers think they learned a particular sign The signs in our set which were rated as being acquired the earliest were EAT and ICE-CREAM; those rated as latest acquired were METAPHOR and BASINGSTOKE. We have collected these normative data on 300 BSL signs from BSL signers all over the UK, with various language backgrounds (20 participants for each of the three tasks). We hope to collect more norms in the future.

The materials from the norming study (i.e. the video clips of the signs normed, and the norms themselves) are being used by all the other research groups within DCAL to develop materials for other experiments. We are also using the normative data to help us develop assessment tools for BSL. There are currently very few tools for assessing sign language proficiency. There are some BSL language assessments for children (receptive and productive) but there are no standardised tests for BSL for adults.

The BSL Grammaticality Judgement Task is a tool for assessing comprehension of BSL grammar. We also aim to create other tools which will assess comprehension and production of BSL phonology, morphology and/or vocabulary. These tools will give us a standard for proficiency/skill in BSL, and will be used by all of the other research strands in DCAL.

We will make the BSL assessment tools available to other BSL researchers around the UK. The normative data results are available here: Vinson, D. P., Cormier, K., Denmark, T., Schembri, A., & Vigliocco, G. (2008). The British Sign Language (BSL) Norms for Age of Acquisition, Familiarity and Iconicity. Behavior Research Methods, 40(4), 1079-1087.

Full materials (including the video clips of the signs normed, and the norms themselves) are available to download for free:


These normative data and assessment tools will help us to understand some of the causes of differences between deaf individuals, and will be useful for teachers, interpreters, social workers and language therapists.

Leaders: Dr. Kearsy CormierDr. Adam Schembri
Assisted by: Dr. David VinsonDr. Tanya Denmark, Dr. Eleni OrfanidouRamas RentelisNeil FoxProf. Gabriella Vigliocco, Dr. Mairead MacSweeney