Grant Programs by the Nippon Foundation “Establishment of a Remote Sign Language Education System Intended to Develop Supporters for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing”
Office of Sign Language Supporter Development Project

Sign language and sign language interpreter education

Characteristics of sign language and sign language interpreting education


[Feature 1] Learning Japanese Sign Language as a second language

 Japanese Sign Language (below, JSL) is a natural language with a unique linguistic structure which differs from that of spoken Japanese. Among deaf children and adults who have grown up communicating in sign language, some have JSL as their mother tongue/first language. People born deaf find it very difficult to acquire written Japanese naturally as the hearing do, even with hearing aids or cochlear implants.

Humans are different from animals because we think in language. In order to live as human beings, we need a language that we can use freely. Gunma University educates human resources who support the linguistic minority of the deaf who use JSL as they study, work, and live in society. For people whose mother tongue/first language is Japanese, the study of JSL involves learning a new language as a second language*. While this is never easy, try the challenge of adding JSL to the languages you can use.

*”Second language” refers to a language acquired through study after acquisition of the mother tongue/first language, differing from this first language.


[Feature 2] Instruction making use of spoken language second language acquisition theory and foreign language instruction methods

 Normally, people born in Japan and growing up in a Japanese-language environment have no problems reading, writing, hearing, or speaking Japanese. Excluding special situations such as congenital impairments, almost everyone becomes a fluent speaker of their mother tongue. However, equal fluency in a second language is difficult to acquire, even with significant study time. The same applies to sign languages.

We are continuing to investigate effective methods of instruction and study in order to achieve fluency in JSL with a few hours a week of study. Second language acquisition research is an interdisciplinary field involving numerous specialist fields such as linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, pedagogy and so on. In recent years, attention has been drawn to the cognitive approach, which grasps the learning mechanism from the perspective of language processing from second language input through output, examining the influence of various manipulations of educational intervention methods on the language learning process. In language learning, noticing and paying attention to specific linguistic forms, errors, insufficiently mastered knowledge and so on is important in target language* input/output. Through noticing things which lead to the acquisition of meta-language knowledge, the learner is able to learn more actively amid this accumulation, and finally to use the target language fluently without conscious awareness of its rules; to achieve this effect, various foreign language instruction methods based on second language acquisition theory have been proposed.

However, there is still very little research on the learning of sign language as a second language, even in global terms. Therefore, we apply spoken language second language acquisition theory and foreign language instruction methods along with practical instruction suited to the properties of sign languages, which employ visual/gestural modalities.

*”Target language” refers to the language being studied.


[Feature 3] Instruction employing spoken language interpretation theory

Gunma University’s objective is to enable a good balance among the four elements of proficiency in JSL (grammatical proficiency, sociolinguistic proficiency, discourse proficiency, strategic proficiency); our program enables working toward national or prefectural qualifications as a sign language interpreter. Therein, we offer practical study in sign language interpreting which adopts spoken language interpretation training methods such as dictation, shadowing, reproduction, summarizing, quick response, sight translation, and so on. Along with composite assessments of students’ JSL learning progress and issues with the interpretation work process, we propose training methods suited to each individual.


[Feature 4] Instruction by deaf instructors who are native JSL signers and hearing instructors with sign language interpreter qualifications

At Gunma University, every learning stage from the acquisition of JSL to advanced sign language interpreter training uses native JSL signers’ expressions and translations as models. With regard in particular to the interpretations and sign language speech expressions used as class materials, deaf instructors with JSL as a first language and hearing instructors with Japanese as a first language cooperate, spending significant time on the study of model expressions, including JSL and Japanese linguistic/sociocultural perspectives.

The teaching staff as a whole, whether deaf or hearing, experience cultural dissonance and conflict in the borderlands between deaf and hearing culture on a daily basis, constantly refining this experience into cooperation. Therein, they work to deepen awareness of the differences between linguistic expressions in JSL and Japanese and the different receptions and attitudes between the deaf and the hearing, bringing this consciousness into their instruction in order to cultivate human resources who are not only capable of using sign language but can also support the deaf with understanding.


[Feature 5] Curriculum design based on the image of adult learners at the higher education level

Students who begin JSL study at the higher education level have the advantages of having acquired Japanese as their mother tongue as well as having experienced the study of English, etc., as their second language. At Gunma University, we maximize these advantages, for a learning style to analytically learn how to express the concepts and linguistic expressions acquired in the native language (Japanese) in the second language (Japanese sign language) in terms of linguistic forms and expressions (language rules). As well, young adult and adult JSL learners are proficient enough in their first languages to discuss various phenomena, knowledge, and emotional complexities. Therefore, we have them acquire the linguistic rules as knowledge at as early a stage as possible, incorporating practice and practical work covering not just simple sentences and conversations but also the advanced content students would be discussing in their first language, enhancing motivation to acquire the new language.


[Feature 6] Analysis of learners and curriculum management

For JSL learners, the acquisition of CL (classifiers) and RS (referential shifts) is known to be difficult; it is not clear, however, in what order learners master the various linguistic rules of JSL (which grammatical points are easier and which more difficult). Therefore, sign language education at Gunma University considers mistaken sign language expressions on the part of JSL learners to be “mirrors of the learner’s current learning status,” carefully analyzing and grasping these errors as made by learners in and outside class. We practice the PDCA cycle, hypothesizing, based on second language acquisition theory, the reason why the grammatical point or expression was incorrectly used, and reflecting in subsequent classes the instruction method or content suited to the results of the hypothesis.

As well, in order to enhance JSL and sign language interpretation skills without excess strain, we use flipped learning in assignments, designed to address the content of that day’s class in steps that anyone can follow.


[Feature 7] Developing effective online classes

Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, institutions of higher education made great efforts as of spring 2020 to put their classes online. With “keeping learning quality high” as our slogan, we worked to guarantee materials compensating for the limitations of 3D expressions in 2D images, clear and stable model sign language videos, and methods of viewing detailed content. In classes, we succeeded in optimizing online conferencing tools for sign language classes in order to conduct effective active learning, which is essential for second language acquisition, along with practical work. We plan to continue development to the point where online classes enable students to master JSL in greater depth.