I’m a little shell-shocked at the moment after completing my second round of post-graduate study and learning that my MSc dissertation (on the sociolinguistic variation of fingerspelling in the BSL Corpus) won a prize. This would not have been possible without the support, encouragement, challenges and insights imparted to me by all the members of the BSL Corpus team at DCAL. I’m really going to miss having that expertise on tap. I’m also privileged enough to have friends, colleagues, vaguely benevolent acquaintances and a partner who feed me, inspire me, tolerate me and kiss it all better (respectively).
Having said that, one of the best things about the BSL Corpus is that anyone can make use of it: video data and gloss annotations are available for download for various elicitation tasks for each of the 249 participants across 8 cities. Furthermore, both of the specialist software tools I used in my project (ELAN for annotation, searching and export, R for statistical analysis) are completely free for non-commercial use: neither of them are notably user-friendly but there is a wealth of support resources and a community of users out there on the ‘net to help you get to grips with them. Meanwhile BSL SignBank, based in large part on data from the Corpus, is also free to use: among other things, it acts as the lexical database reference for the corpus ID glosses (the unique text strings assigned to each signed utterance in the Corpus, which help to make it machine-searchable). It’s the first (and only?) online BSL dictionary to be both research- and usage-based, which makes it both a work in progress and very much a living dictionary: it needs input from the BSL-using community to thrive.
And this is the general point: research should not be thought of as an activity that’s owned by an elite group of career academics, hearing or Deaf. Anyone can get stuck in. Obviously it helps to have a mighty institution and its resources around you, but it’s not necessary. You will learn something by doing even quite dodgy research, even if your main take-home bullet point is just how not to cock it up next time: research betters you. It’s also an opportunity to work with others: my work ends up stronger and better when it’s open to challenges and other perspectives and I have juicy brains to pick. Nor does it have to be on a hugely weighty issue or be a mammoth undertaking: a project can last an hour or a lifetime, be relevant to just one individual or a universe. Interpreters have picked CPD and reflective practice off the shelf, both of which are forms of research in a way, research into our own practice, our own strengths and weaknesses: but do we really support each other to look outward as well?
My feeling is that too often, the (hyper)professional interpreting environment lacks a grounding in research, home-grown or otherwise. In the last few years we have repeatedly seen decisions being made about our work with little transparency and no evidence base, almost as though they are whims or at best hunches, with next to no input from either the academic or practitioner fields. The good news is that ultimately, it doesn’t matter. We own our work, both the bad and the good. We make it what it is, but we have the power and skills to demonstrate why it should be so, and my feeling is that this should be a responsibility, part of our sense of integrity.
If you’re not already a researcher-practitioner, ask yourself and your colleagues what’s stopping you.