Italian Sign Language Assessment (LISA)

Project location: Italy, Various cities
Project start date: December 2012 - Project end date: September 2015
Project number: 2012-034
Beneficiary: Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies of CNR (ISTC)


Deafness is defined as a hearing loss, so severe that the person, with or without amplification, is limited in processing linguistic information through hearing. Congenital hearing loss occurs in Italy in about 1-2 infants per 1000 live births (Cadoni e Quaranta, 2011). Many researches, on deaf children and adults, have examined the consequences of deafness on the acquisition and use of verbal language (which runs on the impaired acoustic modality) and its communicative and social impact. If the child is exposed to a signed language since birth, she/he will acquire it just as a hearing child might learn a spoken language from hearing parents (Marschark e Spencer, 2003; Caselli, Maragna e Volterra, 2006; Schick, Marschark, Spencer, 2006). Based on these studies, bilingual bimodal educational programs (signed language and spoken language) have been developed.
Nowadays in Italy, many deaf children are included in bilingual bimodal educational programs (i.e. Italian Sign Language/spoken Italian) in their schools. Furthermore, in Italy today sign language is taught as a form communication, also in educational environments, even to hearing children with developmental disorders such as Intellectual Disabilities (ID) and Autistic Disorder (AD) (Seal & Bonvillian, 1997; Goldstein, 2002; Vandereet, Maes, Lembrechts, Zink, 2011). In these bilingual schools, a ‘communication assistant' (i.e. a professional figure provided for by the Italian law 104/92) may often use LIS to communicate with the signing child or to render school subjects accessible to the child. The children, in turn, often express themselves in sign language and the communication assistant plays acts as a linguistic mediator, transposing into Italian what the children have signed. As a consequence of these bilingual bimodal educational programs, the signing child's classmates often become bilingual, as they are exposed to LIS within their school environment. In these contexts, both signing children's competencies of Italian Sign language and competencies of spoken and written Italian are regarded as being essential for children's academic achievements (Knoors, 2007). One of the implications of choosing a bilingual curriculum for a child is that her/his signing skills should be carefully monitored (Anderson & Reilly, 2002; Haug, 2005; Herman, 1998; Hermans, Knoors, & Verhoeven, 2010), as there is a high variability in sign language proficiency among populations of signing children (Maller, Singleton, Supalla, & Wix, 1999; Mann, 2007). Just as hearing children acquire spoken language in early childhood, deaf children with deaf parents can acquire sign language at an early age. However, most deaf children are born from hearing parents, who often start to learn LIS themselves when the deafness of their child has been detected. In a similar way parents of children with developmental disorders often start struggling with LIS when it is used by their children within speech therapy and educational environments. At an early age, many deaf children of hearing parents or hearing children with developmental disorders are delayed in the acquisition of their signing skills in comparison with deaf children of deaf parents (Boudreault & Mayberry, 2006; Caselli et al., 2006; Herman & Roy, 2006; Hoiting, 2005; Maller et al., 1999). Since sign language is used in schools to explain other subjects (e.g. math, history, science), a delay in sign language acquisition will also affect the child's academic achievements. Considering the above issues it is now evident how signing skills should be carefully monitored to allow for an effective intervention in signing children. In other countries, research tools to assess the development of sign language in deaf children is already under way (Anderson & Reilly, 2002; Herman, Holmes, & Woll, 1999; Herman & Roy, 2006; Hermans et al., 2010).

At present in Italy there are very few tools to assess Italian Sign Language. Our research group has started to develop some tools that allow to evaluate lexicon. To date these tools have been used only with few children and only for research purposes, therefore it would be important to exploit their potential by considering a wider number of children. Furthermore, developing tools that enable to better understand which processes underlie the acquisition and development of sign language, would allow to verify if these processes are following a ‘typical' path in children and, eventually, to elaborate appropriate intervention strategies.

Evaluating linguistic competencies in signing children, who take part in bilingual bimodal educational programs at school or within speech therapy, will allow communication assistants and speech therapists to verify the child's linguistic competencies and to elaborate an appropriate program of study.

The LISA project aims to construct a battery for the assessment of Italian Sign Language competencies in signing children from 3 to 10 years of age in order to evaluate comprehension and production of sign language. Single tasks will be designed and developed in accordance with Italian Sign Language's linguistic structure and acquisition processes, when these are available (Pizzuto, 2002; Pizzuto, Ardito, Caselli, Volterra, 2001; Russo Cardona & Volterra, 2007; Volterra, 2004). The LISA project will avail itself of the precious collaboration of deaf people, who are native signers currently working for the ISTC-CNR or LIS teachers. The battery will consist of eight computerized Italian Sign Language tasks. Each task will assess a signing child's expressive and receptive skills, in different linguistic domains: vocabulary, morphosyntax and narrative.

The LISA project will include a minimum of 20 children between 8 and 13 years of age, who have been exposed to sign language within their family or during their education or speech therapy. Individual subgroups will be later defined in accordance with participants' characteristics (e.g. chronological age, age of first exposure to LIS, amount of exposure to LIS, number and type of contexts in which the child is exposed to LIS, etc). Participants will be recruited by relying on a vast amount of existing collaborations between our Institute and the deaf community. Some of these collaborations are currently active thanks to a previous research project, carried out by our Institute and the ENS (National Association of the Deaf), aimed at assessing which schools carry out bilingual bimodal educational programs in Italy. Therefore, we shall collect data from all over the country. The LISA project will involve a group of experts in administering and coding the task schemes, who will be trained within the project itself. They will in turn be able to provide an effective training for people working in schools and intervention centers that host signing children.
As it is hard to predict how easy or hard a particular task may be, for signing children within a particular age-group, all tasks will be administered to the whole group of signing children who will take part to the present study.
In addition, we will use Raven's Colored Progressive Matrices (CPM) test to investigate the relationship between the children's test scores and their nonverbal cognitive level.
We will require the use of a dedicated laptop for appropriate stimuli presentation (i.e. short video presentations in sign language requiring a specific screen type and video resolution), on-line data acquisition and subsequent data scoring. The laptop will be used exclusively for project purposes in order to guarantee maximum efficiency and data protection.
The LISA project will have a duration of one year.

Maria Cristina Caselli (Research Director - Scientific Responsible of the Project)
Virginia Volterra (Research Associated)
Paolo Rossini (Research Associated)
Technical Support:
Luca Lamano
Tommaso Lucioli
Alessio Di Renzo

The organization shall develop the following tasks:
- Phonological Comprehension Task;
- Phonological Production Task;
- Lexical Comprehension Task;
- Lexical Production Task;
- Morphosyntactic Comprehension Task;
- Morphosyntactic Production Task;
- Narrative Comprehension Task;
- Narrative Production Task.

The LISA project, which received a grant from the Nando Peretti Foundation, will provide novel data not only in relation to chronological age, but also linked to other relevant variables, such as the amount of experience of LIS and the age of exposure to LIS, that was found to be important in previous studies. The LISA project's final outcome will be a manual describing the theoretical implications of the task, administration modality, scoring procedures and results obtained during this project. The manual will comprise a DVD, which will provide correspondent video contents (i.e. a LIS version of the manual) and the videos essential for administering the task itself.

Beyond these immediate outcomes the organization may foreshadow further uses of the tools developed within the LISA project:
1) Today LIS is often used with hearing children which manifest difficulties in their spoken languages and with children with other disabilities (e.g. Down syndrome, Landau-Kleffner syndrome, autistic spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities, etc.). Therefore it can easily be foreseen a wider application of the tools developed by the LISA project in other fields of research and in clinical environments.
2) As LIS is used in many school environments, many children with typical development experience having signing classmates and they may often indirectly learn LIS. The tool developed by the LISA project may be used in evaluating their this indirectly acquired proficiency and help teachers in evaluating appropriate class assignments that may bring to a better inclusion of deaf children within the class.
3) The LISA project is aimed at children, but in assessing LIS proficiency it may also provide tools that may be employed with adults that are learning LIS. To date in Italy more and more people from the hearing community are attracted by LIS courses and schools and decide to learn LIS. Therefore the LISA project may be used by LIS teachers in evaluating their students' proficiency.
4) Scientists today are often engrossed in cross-linguistic studies that confront with different signed languages. The LISA project will provide a useful tool for researchers wishing to compare the acquisition of signed languages in children from different cultures.

The project has a duration of 12 months, starting from December 1st 2012, and ending in November 30th 2013.

Phase 1 (within the first 6 months):
- Detailed analysis of the existing literature and of the most recent studies on the project's main topic;
- Meetings with people from the deaf community, in order to plan and organize the recruitment procedure;
- Development of task procedures and materials;
- Pilot trials: collection and analysis;
- Presentation to the NPF of the Interim Report.
Phase 2 (month 6 to 12):
- Revision of task materials in accordance with pilot study results;
- Data collection;
- Analysis of the data
- Dissemination of the results;
- Presentation to the NPF of the Final Report.

The National Research Council (CNR) of Italy is a national, public institution.
Its duty is to carry out, promote, spread, transfer and improve research activities in the main sectors of knowledge growth and of its applications for the scientific, technological, economic and social development of the Country.

The Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies (ISTC) is the result of a fusion of various institutions such as: the former Institute of Psychology, the former Institute of Phonetics and Dialectology in Padova and some groups from Biomedical Technologies in Rome, LADSEB in Padova and from the Solid State Electronics group in Rome.
The ISTC is involved in research, diffusion of technologies and training activities in the following areas of research:
- Cognitive, communicative and linguistic processes (in relation to language acquisition, elaboration, linguistic deficits, multimodal expressive systems, communication technologies).
- Theory, analysis and technology of spoken language and of linguistic variability.
- Cognitive development, learning and socialization in children and non-human primates.
- Artificial intelligence, artificial life & artificial societies.
- Cognitive technologies, neural networks & autonomous robotics.
- Social cognition (i.e. behaviour, motivations, cultural transmission and cultural processes).
- Decision-making & cooperation technologies.
- Quality of the environment, health & society (i.e. prevention, education, integration, handicap, technological planning).

The ISTC is organized in many labs.
The Language and Communication across Modalities (LaCAM) Lab. (Coordinator: Maria Cristina Caselli) has been engaged in the study of communication and language in children with typical and atypical development and in the study of Sign Language acquisition and use, in both children and adult populations. The LaCAM lab is located in the State Institute of Deaf (Istituto Statale per Sordi - ISSR). The ultimate goal of research is to reach a more profound understanding of universal as well as modality dependent features of human linguistic abilities. A wide range of methods is used in data collection: behavioural tests, naturalistic observations, parent questionnaires, video analysis, eye-tracking and sensor platforms. Some of these instruments have been developed within this lab and are now widely employed.
The lab has strong links with organizations and practitioners working in education and clinical practice and all lab research is aimed at providing results and materials, which may have a relevant social impact and help researchers and practitioners with their daily challenges. To this aim the LaCAM lab has always enforced a cross-disciplinary approach to the study of communication, often bringing together deaf and hearing researchers from various fields encouraging dialogue and synergy.

The lab is currently organized in two research units: the Gesture, Language Acquisition and Developmental Disorders (GLADD) research unit (coordinator: Olga Capirci) and the Sign Language and Deaf Studies (SLDS) research unit (coordinator: Paolo Rossini).
The GLADD Research Unit focuses on the role of gestures during different developmental stages (from the first years of life to school age), within different contexts of interaction and cognitive tasks (e.g. interaction with caregivers, lexical naming tasks, narration tasks) and in different populations. Most of its work to date has been dedicated to developmental psychology and neuropsychology, with a particular emphasis on the study of the processes implied in the elaboration, acquisition and use of communication and language in different modalities of expression with particular reference to the gestural one and in children with typical and atypical development (e.g. deafness, Down and Williams syndrome, autism).
The SLDS research unit is dedicated to the study of Italian Sign Language (LIS), and to its acquisition and use. The main aim is to highlight specific aspects of human communication in relation to LIS, more specifically, distinguishing and analysing features of language structure and use, specific to signed and/or spoken languages and universal features, that appear to be modality and language independent. In order to reach this goal this research unit has focused particularly on descriptive theoretical approaches and specific forms of representations of LIS, as well as on the development of new instruments to assess the linguistic abilities of deaf children, adolescents and adults in LIS.
An adaptation of questionnaires for parents (i.e. the Italian Sign language version of the McArthur Bates CDI) to LIS and a series of lexical tasks in LIS are currently under way.


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