Sign language data collection
– how to do it?

Freely adapted from Karin Hoyer’s (2012) article
”Teckenspråk och datainsamling – metoder och utmaningar”
(Sign language and data collection – methods and challenges)


This is an information package in Finland-Swedish Sign Language and in Swedish, English and Finnish. The package is aimed primarily at Deaf signers who want basic information on what to consider when collecting sign language video material for language research. The information package is based on Karin Hoyer’s article ”Teckenspråk och datainsamling – metoder och utmaningar” (Sign language and data collection – methods and challenges) from 2012, but during the work process we have taken the liberty to select certain parts of the original text and modify them to create our final product.

If you do a library or Internet search, you will probably find many guides and manuals that provide data collection tips for research. So why did we produce an information package like this? We have several reasons. First, the major proportion of all research-related literature is comprised of written texts, often in a language that can seem incomprehensible even to a native user. Finding the same information in sign language is extremely rare. Second, the literature deals mostly with the collection of data in written or spoken languages and seldom with the collection of data in sign language. Third, the little information that can be found in sign language is often translated from written languages. It is common in these translations for the source text to shine through in a way that makes them difficult to understand for a Deaf target audience. Fourth, an information package like this has never existed before in the severely endangered Finland-Swedish Sign Language.

With this information package, we want to reduce the gap between language research and the "common Deaf person". By explaining the principles of data collection in an accessible way and in sign language, we simply want to make the Deaf to be more involved in the study of their own language. Although the information package is based on a written text, we have placed great emphasis on distancing ourselves from the Swedish text and making the sign language text an independent product used as an equivalent to the mother tongue. This means that the written and signed versions are not identical. Among other things, more concepts are explained through examples in the sign language version, and the goal is to do this not only in a colloquial manner but clearly.

In addition to helping make language research more accessible to a Deaf target group, we also want to work against Deaf people being temporarily hired in research projects without them knowing why they are encouraged to act in a certain way. We also hope that a growing language interest in the long term will provide more opportunities for sign language studies and for increased research in the sign languages in general as well as in the Finland-Swedish Sign Language in particular. Last but not the least, we want to show that no language is too small or threatened to raise a discussion about language and language research.

To take part in the information package, no special prior knowledge is required – just an interest in languages. Good luck!

Helsinki 13 September 2017,
Maria Andersson-Koski and Janne Kankkonen

1. Collecting sign language material for language research

Why collect video material?

Keep the following in mind before you collect material


Why collect video material?

To study the sign language you need material that is filmed. This is needed for the language analysis.

The analysis requires you to view the video clip countless number of times to be really sure how the person signs.

When you have gathered several short videos of different people using the language, it is possible to compare between them in order to find examples on how the language is used, thus making it possible to describe the language.

Keep the following in mind before you collect material:

Why do I collect material?

What is the purpose of the collection? What components in the language do I want to study? What kind of material do I need?

Whose language do I want to study?

Do I want to study language users for whom the language is their mother tongue/second language/foreign language? Do I want to study older or younger language users? Do I want to study women or men?

How can I achieve my goal?

There are always various methods to achieve a goal. You must decide which method suits your goal best.

For example:
I want to study how persons using Finland-Swedish Sign Language sign “cousin”. How should I do this? Should I ask sign language users just like that? Should I ask them about their family? Should I ask them about a picture on a family tree? Should I organize a group discussion where participants discuss family relationships shown in a film?

Just asking “How do you sign?” is seldom the best alternative.


In order for the collected material to be useful, the language use should be as spontaneous and natural as possible!

Spontaneous and natural language = a language form that is as close as possible to the language native users actually use with each other in everyday life.

How to capture a natural language on film?

In order to film a natural and spontaneous language, you need to know what affects the informant's language.

Informant = the person giving information; that is, the person you are filming.

More information

Tips for getting started with studying sign language are also available at:
Sign Language Linguistics Society (

2. What affects the language?

The following may affect the language of the informant:

1. Who is collecting the material

2. The camera

3. Environment, conversation topic and other informants

4. What the informant knows about the data collection and the research

5. How the data collection is done (method)

1. Who is collecting the material

People are great at adapting their language to the person to whom s/he is speaking. This adjustment is usually done unknowingly. Therefore, the collector of the material makes a big difference.

Differing mother tongues

If the person collecting the material has a different mother tongue from the informant, there is a risk that the informant will change (adapt) his/her language so that it is more reminiscent of the collector.

For example:

A Deaf person using Finnish Sign Language filming a Deaf person using Finland-Swedish Sign Language -> the informant's language becomes more like Finnish Sign Language.

A hearing person films a Deaf person -> the informant’s sign language may contain more elements from the written language.

The same mother tongues

If the person who collects the material has the same mother tongue as the informant, the possibility is significantly greater that the informant’s language will be natural. However, the way the sign language is used and the collector’s social relationship with the informant may affect the informant’s language.

For example:

If you sign quickly, the informant might also increase the tempo and sign faster than usual.

If you use old or regional signs, the informant might also start doing the same, even though s/he does not otherwise use them.

If you are significantly younger than the informant, the informant may avoid old hand alphabet or old signs that s/he thinks you may not understand.

2. The camera

The camera can make the informant nervous, which in turn makes the conversation stiff and unnatural (especially if the person who collects the material fumbles with the equipment).

The camera can make the informant consider carefully what s/he is saying:

For example:

The informant thinks “everyone will know what I tell you, so I must think carefully about what I say” -> the language becomes stiff and unnatural (i.e. not spontaneous) because the informant is nervous and overly conscious of what s/he says.

The camera can make the situation appear official and the informant starts using a language that s/he thinks is more refined or more desirable.

For example:

The informant starts using signed speech instead of pure sign language (because in Deaf history this was once considered ideal).

The informant tries to make careful, neat signs, using minor movements that s/he thinks are “more suitable on film”.

3. Environment, conversation topic and other informants

A safe and familiar environment can make the informant’s language more natural compared to an unfamiliar environment.

An unusual or official conversation topic (e.g. politics) can make the informant use a more rigid and unnatural language than a conversation that feels close and safe (e.g. his/her own childhood memories). A topic that the informant associates with his/her own language (e.g. school) can make the informant’s language more natural than a topic that the person does not usually discuss in his/her own language (e.g. linguistics).

Are there several informants present? Do they already know each other? Are they socially equal? Are they of the same age and gender? Informants also adapt to each other linguistically. If a group, for example, consists of three younger and one older informant, the older informant is likely to automatically avoid using old hand alphabet and signs s/he perceives as "old", since s/he thinks that these are more difficult for the younger informants to understand.

4. What the informant knows about the data collection and the research

The informant is entitled to know why the information is being collected.

However, the person who collects the material needs to consider what information the informant should receive prior to filming. If the goal of the data collection is to document school memories and study time expressions in the informant's language, it may be enough to highlight the first goal prior to filming.

If right from the start you say "Now I'm filming to study your language", you may make the informant nervous, which can affect his/her language. If you also say "Now I’m filming to examine which signs you use for time expressions", the informant may become overly conscious of his/her own way of expressing time, making his/her language unnatural and clumsy.

5. How the data collection is done (method)

Each time you collect material, you must decide how to do it. Various methods may have various advantages and disadvantages. How much you choose to steer the informant can also affect his/her language.

Examples of methods:

  • Interview
  • Group discussions
  • Free narration
  • Games
  • Narration with the help of pictures

If you ask the informant "What is this in your language?" directly, there is a great probability that the answer will be different than if the same phrase was picked out of a natural conversation.

3. Who is the informant?

The language of your informants is the basis for your research results. It is therefore important that you:

1. Consider whom you choose as an informant

2. Ask the informant about his/her language usage and linguistic background

Questions you can ask concerning linguistic background

1. Informant selection

What is the purpose of the collection? Whose language am I studying?

If you want to study a language, you have to remember that language can vary depending on, for example, place of residence, age, and gender. If you want to make a comprehensive study, you need informants that represent as many different “categories" as possible.

2. Language usage and linguistic background

When analysing a person's language, it is much easier to draw accurate conclusions if you know the person's linguistic background and everyday language usage.

If you do not know what has formed your informant’s language, there is a risk that you will be guessing and making incorrect conclusions about the language.


If you assume that a person uses Finland-Swedish Sign Language, and you do not take into account in the analysis that this person has only been socializing with Finnish Deaf persons for the last ten years, you may mistakenly describe Finnish Sign Language features as belonging to the Finland-Swedish Sign Language.

Questions you can ask concerning linguistic background:

  1. Name, sign name?
  2. Date of birth (day, month, year)?
  3. Where do you live and where were you born?
  4. Reason for deafness?
  5. Are your parents, siblings and relatives Deaf?
  6. When did you first come into contact with other Deaf people?
  7. What school did you attend? When did you start and graduate from school?
  8. In which places have you lived?
  9. Do you have a Deaf or hearing partner?
  10. Are you a parent? Are your children Deaf or hearing? What language do you use with them?
  11. How often do you use sign language in your daily life?
  12. Which sign language do you use the most? (Do you socialize with Deaf people using Finnish Sign Language, Finland-Swedish Sign Language, Swedish Sign Language or other sign language?)
  13. What are your thoughts about your own sign language? Which language feels closest to you?

4. Research permission

Permission to use the material

Things to keep in mind when you draw up a permit form

Permission to use the material

According to the Personal Data Act, video recordings of individuals also reveal their personal data.

To manage personal data, you must obtain permission from the contributors by law. When you collect video material, it is very important that your informant, gives his/her consent either in writing or on film (can be signed) for you to use the material.

If the informants do not give their consent, you do not have the legal right to use video recordings for language research, education, or anything else, and in that case the entire recording is unnecessary.

Think about who is responsible for the recordings. If you do the recording for an authority, such as a university, union or association, the recording belongs to the authority and not to you as an individual.

Things to keep in mind when you draw up a permit form

It is easiest to request permission on a written form, as the form can then be stored together with the material in an accessible manner. Even if the informant signs the permit, it is therefore worthwhile filling in a form stating that the license exists, in case the material and the permit get separated. This way you facilitate the use of the material in the future.

Think carefully about what kind of permits are needed. How will the material be used? Will it be used for research or for educational purposes or both? Where will it be used and in what form? Will it be publicly available on the web or just for specific researchers?

Also bear in mind that the material you have collected may be valuable in the future. What kind of rights will be needed for someone else to use your material in the future?


Twenty years ago nobody knew that the use of the Internet would become so common. It is equally difficult to predict what the next big thing will be in twenty years. However, if you are aware of this, it is still possible to some extent to take the future into account when you draw up a permission form.

More information

Personal Data Act (in English) (

Example of a permission form (in Swedish): (

5. Practical tips – when filming in ordinary environments

Before filming

Preparation of the recording site

During filming

After filming

Before filming

  • Familiarize yourself with the technical equipment and practice filming beforehand.
  • Make a list of the equipment you may need (e.g. extension cords, extra memory cards).
  • If you are interviewing, memorize the questions to avoid unnecessary papers that make a natural conversation more difficult. If you need help in remembering the questions, you can keep your papers on a music stand, for example.
  • Consider whether the informant should be compensated in any way for helping you. What kind of compensation should that be? Should it be monetary compensation or a symbolic gift (like a flower or a copy of the recording)?

Preparation of the recording site

  • Think about where you will meet the informant.
    • How is the lighting? Never film against backlight and avoid glass tables and mirrors that may distort the light!
    • What is the background like? Will you need to provide a suitable background (for example some kind of fabric)?
    • Are there disturbing elements in the vicinity, e.g. a talkative partner?
  • Pay attention to where the informant sits and what s/he is wearing.
    • If the informant sits deeply sunk in an armchair, it may restrict the movement of the hands -> ask the informant to sit on a regular chair without armrests.
    • If the informant is wearing a very colourful and mottled top, it can be difficult to discern the hand movements in the film -> ask the informant to kindly change the top s/he is wearing.
  • Consider the camera angle.
    • If you only have one camera and, for example, want to film several informants, you need to know who is right- or left-handed. A right-handed informant must be filmed obliquely from the left to ensure that the dominant hand does not obscure the non-dominant hand.

During filming

  • Begin with noting the place and date, as well as the names and the sign names of the participants for the camera.
  • Ask permission to do the research. You can also ask for permission at the end of the recording.
    • Asking for permission can make the situation appear more formal than necessary, in which case it may be better to take care of this bit at the end of the recording.
  • Start with some small talk to relax the atmosphere.
  • Remember that your own language affects the informant.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected (e.g. technical problems, interested pets or changes in the weather).

After filming

  • Mark the recordings clearly!
    • Write down: recording length, date, place, participant's name, a short description of the content.
  • Make backups.
  • Compile information about the informant's linguistic background on a separate form and store it with the material.
  • Keep the consent form together with the material.
  • Keep in mind where you keep the material. It must not end up in the wrong hands.
  • Start processing (e.g. annotating) and analysing the material.


Lev i vårt språk (Livs)

Humak University of Applied Sciences
Produced in cooperation with Viittomakielinen kirjasto (sign language library)
Helsinki 2017

Based on: Hoyer, Karin 2012: Teckenspråk och datainsamling – metoder och utmaningar. Part of doctoral dissertation at the University of Helsinki: Karin Hoyer, 2012. Dokumentation och beskrivning som språkplanering: perspektiv från arbete med tre tecknade minoritetsspråk.

Script: Janne Kankkonen & Maria Andersson-Koski
Signer: Janne Kankkonen
Text: Maria Andersson-Koski
Direction: Janne Kankkonen
Producer: Maria Andersson-Koski
Illustration: Janne Kankkonen

Filming and editing: Kalle Juusti
User interface coding and technical solutions: Mikko Palo / Mediapalo

Translated by: Translatinki Oy
Video background: © nailiaschwarz / 123RF Stock Photo

Special thanks to: Liisa Halkosaari, Åke Uusimäki, Brita Peura, Magdalena Kintopf-Huuhka, Päivi Rainò, Annika Aalto, Taina Petäjäinen, Jan-Ola Östman, Karin Hoyer and Riitta Vivolin-Karén.