Documenting the ASL communities: MoLo and O5S5 Projects

By Julie A. Hochgesang, Professor of Linguistics, Gallaudet University
Presentation for Princeton Program of Linguistics 2022-2023 Guest Lecture Series – April 19, 2023 (link to video)

References and acknowledgments

Abstract As a deaf linguist in North America, my recent work has revolved around documenting the language use of the ASL communities in North America. In my presentation, I first describe some of the motivations that drive my documentation work with ASL communities - ethics of working with signed language communities; lack of inclusion of signed languages in general linguistics (even and especially those that discuss “all human languages”); that there's no single ASL community but rather ASL communities; the lack of conventionalized written system for ASL. Then I describe two current documentation projects - “Motivated Look at Indicating Verbs in ASL (MoLo)” and “Documenting the experiences of the ASL communities in the time of COVID-19 (O5S5)” which I am working on sharing as open access. The work I do is because of the ASL communities and I consider myself a member of these communities. I try my best to honor the language and communities by documenting it with care and rigor and thinking about the power of representation and accessibility, which I’ll reflect upon throughout my presentation.
What follows are notes for this presentation, which was presented using mmhmm which doesn't allow for me to share presentation notes easily so I've created this webpage instead. Each block is connected to one or two "slides" of my presentation. 

To cite this presentation: 
Hochgesang, J. (2023). Documenting the ASL communities: MoLo and O5S5 Projects. figshare.


Documenting the ASL communities: MoLo and O5S5 Projects by Julie A. Hochgesang @jahochcam (Twitter) for Princeton 2023, Gallaudet University Department of Linguistics (logo). Three images in background of people signing in ASL - "document", "look" and "coronavirus"

In this presentation, I discuss my work (along with my long-time collaborators Emily Shaw and Miako Villanueva as my ASL interpreters) in documenting the language use of the ASL communities, particularly two projects – “Motivated Look at Indicating Verbs in ASL (MoLo)” and “O5S5: Documenting the experiences of the ASL communities in the time of Covid-19”. As I do so, I reflect on my research practices. To start with, note that I have English in the slide here and in the background you can see ASL signs (“document“, “look“, and “coronavirus“). I include ASL as much as possible in my disseminated work because it’s one of my primary languages and the primary focus of my research. And it’s a way of pushing back against the dominant presence of English in research processes and products. This is one example of how I do my work with care and rigor.


Blue banner with white text "positionality" opaque and cropped image of a woman with short hair signing "perspective" in ASL

The image shown here under “positionality” is one of the ASL variants that can be used for that concept. (Also see this – hot off the presses! Found via Lynn Hou) To situate my research practices, I’m a white sighted Deaf woman raised in the Midwest of North America. I use visual ASL and (usually) written English as my primary languages.

My middle-class upbringing and access to both English and ASL means I’ve had privileged access to education. I think a lot about how to make my work accessible beyond that kind of access, especially how knowledge is primarily accessed through written English. I am a professor in the linguistics department of Gallaudet University. Much of my research these days is about documenting the language use of the ASL communities in North America (drawing from practices in language documentation, e.g, Berez-Kroeker et al 2022).

Screenshot of a tweet by Julie Ann Hochgesang @jahochcam 5 Feb 2017 - I am an #actuallivingscientist. I document signed languages in a way that is accessible for both the research and Deaf communities #scicomm. Three images with Julie and different women signing in ASL in a filming studio

This is a tweet I shared under the #ActualLivingScientist hashtag a few years ago. It was my pinned tweet for a long time. As the tweet shows, I’m a documenter. I “show” (I adore the beautifully iconic ASL sign for this). As I said earlier, I consider myself a member of the ASL communities and I see the beauty and importance of situated practices, such as being mindful of including our language, ASL, in presentations and published works.

Some of the other motivations that drive my work include considering the ethics of working with the signed language communities, particularly for language documentation and corpora (as discussed in Hochgesang and Palfreyman, 2022) while doing it reflexively (e.g., Hou 2017), and guidelines on how to share data as open access with care, particularly the FAIR and CARE guidelines, and the Austin Principles of Data Citation (which focuses on the importance of sharing primary data, often not included in research dissemination).

FAIR Guiding Principles for scientific data management and stewardship can be accessed here

Hou (2017), on deaf-led research, noting that most work has been done by hearing researchers and when there’s a shared experience in the research setting, there can be a deep bond. And like Henner and Robinson (2021) say in their paper “Unsettling Languages, Unruly Bodyminds: Imaging a Crip Linguistics” :

People use languages in different ways. Some people use language to help find other people like them. Many people use language in specific ways because of how their body and mind work. Sometimes a person’s environment and material conditions forces them to use language in a certain way. However, when someone languages outside of what people think is normal, others can think that they are bad with language or are not as smart or are broken. We are trying to point out that no one is actually ‘bad with language.’ Our goal with this paper is to help people understand that no language is bad.”


As there is no one way to language, there is no single, homogenous signing community but rather signing communities (e.g., De Meulder et al 2019). And all of the richness that we see with signing communities are rarely covered in general linguistics (recall the Bender Rule) – partially because it’s hard to access our data (see Hochgesang 2022), but partially because the field has a lot of work to do in presenting how language is actually used, it’s not just spoken as Melissa Malzkuhn reminds us with “To sign is human“, as well as other modalities like PT ASL (Clark and Nuccio, 2020).

Deaf-led MobileDeaf is an excellent example of representing signing (or as they say, languaging) experiences, using a linguistic ethnographic framework, and also of thinking critically about how to represent knowledge from our signing communities, e.g., documentary film-making (Moriarty, 2020) such as #DeafTravel.

As we think about how to represent signing experiences, we also need to acknowledge that ASL and other signed languages don’t have conventionalized writing systems, which are are time-honored ways of preserving information. As Veditz (1913) (via Padden 2004) says, we need “moving picture (films)”. To get around the lack of conventionalized writing systems, I use the ASL Signbank (an annotation tool that stores unique textual labels for ASL signs along with visual representation) with ELAN (annotation software) in my work. The combination of ASL Signbank and ELAN allows us to annotate ASL videos with a consistent textual labeling system that then lets us explore language in use. (Also see Börstell 2022 for more about how to visually represent signed languages)

So with all of that in mind, the two projects I describe here show how I, along with other members of the ASL communities, work to “showcase the data itself” (Moriarty, 2020). The data being language texts from ASL communities. I also show how I care for the data, while being reflective of relevant issues with working with signed language communities and systemic issues such as the colonial practice of collection (e.g., Leonard, 2018). I am currently working on sharing both datasets, MoLo and O5S5, as open access along with data statements (Bender et al 2021) through Figshare (O5S5) or OSF (MoLo), both of which are cloud-based repositories.

Also another example of reflective practices is evident in the name of the projects I describe today – “Motivated Look at Indicating Verbs in ASL” or MoLo (#MoLoASL) for short is a rich and layered name which has a name sign that is equally rich. (By the way, we see this with the ASL Signbank too – the logo, designed by deaf graphic designer Silvia Palmieri, has our name sign in it.) Both gifs are below. Then with “Documenting the experiences of the ASL communities in the time of Covid-19” or “O5S5” for short (#O5S5ASL). “O5S5” is derived from the handshapes we see in two ASL variants for “document” and “covid” so it’s our written English abbreviation that has been inspired by the ASL signs themselves.

Julie, white woman with long brown hair seated in her living room with art on the wall. She's signing the MoLo namesign - hand with middle, index and thumb extended, middle finger is flexed and thumb tapping chin
MoLo namesign produced by Julie
Blue background, white and gray text "ASL Signbank" with white outline of hand signing the name sign for ASL Signbank (it looks like "s" and "b" handshapes but is actually derived from "to sign" and "list")
ASL Signbank logo with namesign animated
Signing O5S5 (“document” “covid”)


Now let’s get to the projects themselves, starting with MoLo, which again is short for “Motivated Look at Indicating Verbs in ASL”. This is a corpus-based project drawing from the BSL corpus project methodology and findings (Cormier et al 2015). Our three-year project started in the fall of 2019 which meant we had to pivot during the spring of 2020 as we started data collection. We did it all online through Zoom.

Screenshots of zoom recording from session with Marvin Miller and Raychelle Harris with captions labeling the type of task - personal narrative, free conversation, system prompt and language attitude and awareness interview. The first two screenshots are just Marvin and Raychelle. The last two also have Julie.

While we are interested in creating an open-access and corpus-based dataset of ASL being used by a diverse group of deaf North Americans, we were especially motivated (heh) to look at indicating verbs to better understand the use of signing space. We conducted two-hour sessions with two participants and two project members each with a total of 23 sessions (~46 hours). Each session has four tasks – personal narrative, free conversation, systems prompt (to hopefully elicit more indicating verbs), and language attitudes and awareness interviews.

One way we critically thought about our open-access practices was thinking about how to share our video data. We gave our participants options in how they wanted their data to be shared – fully open (🤲, which looks like one of the ASL variants for “open”), researcher-only (🏫), MoLo team-only (🔐) and other permission levels (ℹ️). Each of these emojis representing each level of access are used as watermarks in the lower right areas of our videos to indicate their level. It’s a nice constant visual reminder that the participants have granted (specific levels of) permission to use their data.

Stitched images of zoom windows showing different people with different background signing in ASL. Bottom right of screen has open hands emoji to indicate open access level - 🤲
Examples of videos with open-access emoji 🤲 in lower right of video (taken from Hochgesang et al 2023)
wordcloud of black text on blue-green background. Text in varying sizes

To be reviewed: 


Language+Variation (+possession, slang)
eng: _____

Race (+family tend, culture, language expression) 


NewSigner (exhausting (teaching ABC’s to hearing people just starting))




Standardization (=too far, evolution) 

As an example of how we’ve been able to document a varied range of experiences of signing deaf North Americans, here are some of the themes (see word cloud on the left created via we’ve seen in our language attitudes and awareness interviews, an excellent way to explore language ideologies (e.g., Kusters et al, 2020) of those who consider themselves part of the ASL communities (this is from ongoing work with research collaborator Erin Moriarty and with the help of research assistant Meagan Sietsema).

Using ASL Signbank and ELAN, we have, to date, annotated about 20 percent (~8 hours, ~41,000 sign tokens) of the MoLo videos. Adapting the coding scheme from Cormier et al (2015), we are currently coding verbs for use of direction and signing space. We are also preparing to share the open-access videos on OSF along with a data statement.


Inspired by MI Diaries (Sneller & Wagner, 2021) and other online documentation of people’s experiences during the pandemic, my graduate Field Methods class in the fall of 2021 – when we finally returned to face-to-face classes after a year online – decided to document the experiences of the ASL communities in the time of Covid-19. As I described earlier for the motivations of my work, we drew on the practices of linguistic ethnography (e.g., Kusters and Hou, 2020), language documentation (e.g., Berez-Kroeker et al 2022) and sociolinguistics. It was also very personal since we too were living through a pandemic and deeply affected by changes to our lives and language practices, e.g., masking, physical distancing, Zoom or video-meditated communication (#EmboxedDiscourse), etc. It was rather cathartic to explore how the pandemic shaped our everyday practices, especially language-wise.

We have collected 58 sessions of varying text type (conversation, interview, narrative) in different “settings” (masked, unmasked, on zoom, individual video narrative submitted by participants themselves). We also have extensive field notes of our own in which we’ve collected material throughout the pandemic from our own lives (email, news, social media, etc). We have also catalogued 375 videos shared online from 2020 to 2023 by Gallaudet University and other deaf individuals or organizations.

Here is a compilation of most of those sessions. Each participant has granted permission to share.

#O5S5ASL video snippets of most O5S5 sessions

Unsurprisingly the O5S5 data is rich. We see these themes: shared stories about living through the pandemic, language practices while masked or emboxed (video-mediated communication), linguistic innovation (e.g., ASL signs for “mask“, “covid“, “pandemic“…), and ideologies about language and communicative practices during the pandemic.

Here’s one brief example of one person’s experience with the pandemic – specifically her first time out in public with a mask. In her 4-minute and 9-second narrative (linked below), Renca Dunn thoughtfully narrates her experience. Not only do we see insights on complex issues such as adjusting to life during a pandemic requiring changes to everyday practices (masking, distancing), but we also see how she uses language to reflect all this. Before 2020, we barely thought about how to sign “mask” but during the pandemic, it was something we all had to contend with. Unsurprisingly there is variation to contend with (we’ve documented 5 ASL variants for “mask” so far) and how to actually use it in discourse. In the video linked below, you’ll see how Renca signs and depicts “mask” – blurring the boundary between “sign” and “depicting sign/other variant/gesture” if there even is one (Lepic and Occhino, 2018).

Renca talks about the concept of “mask” 32 times in her monologic narrative. She represents different aspects of it – the whole mask, the mask covering the mouth, the strings going over the ears, how it deprives us (reminiscent of the sign we use for “language deprivation“), and how to be free of it (first gif below). During her depiction of masking, she often uses body partitioning (Dudis, 2004) to produce multiple elements that are not of the same entity, especially this one powerful moment where she shows literally how the mask blocks her own mouth and the other person’s to metaphorically represent a barrier in communication (second gif below).

Renca Dunn signing in ASL "looking forward to the day when we can be free of masks (beautifully shown by taking it off and throwing it away) and have half our language back"
Renca signing in ASL about how she looks forward to the day we are free of masks and get half of our language back
Animated gif of Renca showing how she and the other person are masked and struggling to communicate
Animated gif of Renca showing how she and the other person are masked and struggling to communicate

There is much in our data and I’m excited to share it all although there’s a lot of work left to do. Again using ASL Signbank and ELAN, we have about 10 percent of the O5S5 video data annotated. We have catalogued all of the videos (and any relevant material) and added metadata. We are currently working on coding for pandemic-focused themes. We are also preparing to share the open-access videos on Figshare along with a data statement.

In this presentation, I’ve showed there’s much to share and, of course, care for. I shared the motivations that drive my work and have critically reflected on knowledge-collecting and -producing and making all of that accessible to more than just myself since I cannot and should not represent all of the experiences in the signing communities. And two projects I shared today – MoLo and O5S5 – are just a small (but dare I say, mighty) part of all that.

References and acknowledgments

Bender, E., Friedman, B., & McMillan-Major, A. (2021). Data Statements: A Guide for Writing Data Statements for Natural Language Processing (Version 2). Tech Policy Lab, University of Washington.

Berez-Kroeker, A. L., McDonnell, B., Koller, E., & Collister, L. B. (Eds.). (2022). The Open Handbook of Linguistic Data Management. MIT Press.

Börstell, C. (2022). Introducing the signglossR Package. In E. Efthimiou, S.-E. Fotinea, T. Hanke, J. A. Hochgesang, J. Kristoffersen, J. Mesch, & M. Schulder (Eds.), Proceedings of the LREC2022 10th Workshop on the Representation and Processing of Sign Languages: Multilingual Sign Language Resources (pp. 16–23). European Language Resources Association (ELRA).

Boveda, M., & Annamma, S. A. (2023). Beyond Making a Statement: An Intersectional Framing of the Power and Possibilities of Positioning. Educational Researcher , 0013189X231167149.

Choi, T. (n.d.). Distributed Web of Care. Retrieved January 4, 2022, from

Clark, J. L., & Nuccio, J. B. (2020). Protactile Linguistics: Discussing recent research findings. Journal of American Sign Languages and Literatures.

Cormier, K., Fenlon, J., & Schembri, A. (2015). Indicating verbs in British Sign Language favour motivated use of space. Open Linguistics, 1(1).

De Meulder, M., Krausneker, V., Turner, G., & Conama, J. B. (2019). Sign Language Communities. In G. Hogan-Brun & B. O’Rourke (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Minority Languages and Communities (pp. 207–232). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Dudis, P. G. (2004). Body partitioning and real-space blends. Cognitive Linguistics, 15(2).

Kusters, A., Green, M., Moriarty, E., & Snoddon, K. (2020). Sign language ideologies – Practices and politics. In A. Kusters, M. Green, E. Moriarty, & K. Snoddon (Eds.), Sign Language Ideologies in Practice (pp. 3–22). De Gruyter Mouton.

Henner, J., & Robinson, O. (2021). Unsettling Languages, Unruly Bodyminds: Imaging a Crip Linguistics.

Hochgesang, J. A. (2022, July 15). (A)SL Archiving FOR-FOR? ISGS9 Lunchtime presentation for SAGA, University of Chicago.

Hochgesang, J., Bates, M., Clark, A., Davis, K., Dunham, M., Hamilton, L., Kadar, S., Kim, Y., Martínez Castiblanco, J. A., Maucere, G., Newman, T., & Simmons, H.. (2021). O5S5: Documenting the experiences of the ASL Communities in the time of COVID-19 (Version2). figshare.

Hochgesang, J.A., Crasborn, O. & Lillo-Martin, D. (2017-2023). ASL Signbank. New Haven, CT: Haskins Lab, Yale University.

Hochgesang, J. A., Lepic, R., Dudis, P., Shaw, E., & Villanueva, M. (2022, September 27). Motivated look at indicating verbs in ASL (MoLo). Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research 14, Osaka, Japan. Open Science Framework.

Hochgesang, J. A., Lepic, R., & Shaw, E. (2023). W(h)ither the ASL corpus?: Considering trends in signed corpus development. In E. Wehyrmeyer (Ed.), Gaining ground in sign language corpus linguistics (pp. 287–308). John Benjamins.

Hochgesang, J. A., & Palfreyman, N. (2022). Sign language corpora and the ethics of working with sign language communities. In J. Fenlon & J. A. Hochgesang (Eds.), Signed Language Corpora (pp. 158–195). Gallaudet University Press.

Hou, L. Y.-S. (2017). Negotiating Language Practices and Language Ideologies in Fieldwork: A Reflexive Meta-Documentation. In A. Kusters, M. De Meulder, & D. O’Brien (Eds.), Innovations in Deaf Studies: The Role of Deaf Scholars (pp. 339–360). Oxford University Press.

Kusters, A., De Meulder, M., & O’Brien, D. (2017). Innovations in Deaf Studies: The Role of Deaf Scholars. Oxford University Press.

Kusters, A., & Hou, L. (2020). Linguistic Ethnography and Sign Language Studies. Sign Language Studies, 20(4), 561–571.

Leonard, W. Y. (2018). Reflections on (de)colonialism in language documentation. In B. McDonnell, A. L. Berez-Kroeker, & G. Holton (Eds.), Reflections on Language Documentation 20 Years after Himmelmann 1998. Language Documentation & Conservation Special Publication no. 15 (pp. 55–65). University of Hawai’i.

Lepic, R., & Occhino, C. (2018). A Construction Morphology Approach to Sign Language Analysis. In G. Booij (Ed.), The Construction of Words: Advances in Construction Morphology (pp. 141–172). Springer International Publishing.

Moriarty, E. (2020). Filmmaking in a Linguistic Ethnography of Deaf Tourist Encounters. Sign Language Studies, 20(4), 572–594.

Padden, C. (2004). Translating Veditz. Sign Language Studies, 4(3), 244–260.

Sneller, B., & Wagner, S. E. (2021, October 8). Home – MI Diaries.

Gratitude to all of our participants who shared their experiences with us. Deep appreciation for the work of MoLo research assistants – Donovan Catt, Chanika Dorsey, Paul Gabriola, Meagan Sietsema, LeeAnn Tang, and Cody Willow. Also see Hochgesang et al (2021) reference for O5S5 research team members.

Funding for MoLo provided by Gallaudet’s Priority Research Fund grant 2019-2022; For O5S5, Gallaudet University School of Language, Education and Culture (2021-2022).

The research reported here was supported in part by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health under award number R01DC013578 and award number R01DC000183. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

The ASL Signbank was developed at Radboud University by Onno Crasborn, Wessel Stoop, Micha Hulsbosch, and Susan Even.


And I’m excited to announce that Signed Language Corpora (Gallaudet University Press) edited by Jordan Fenlon and myself with foreword by Trevor Johnston is out now!

The open-access Open Handbook of Linguistic Data Management is now available and an incredible resource along with its companion site. There are a few chapters related to signed languages, including my own.

Julie. A. Hochgesang (/ˈhoʊkˌsæŋ/) is a professor of Linguistics at Gallaudet University. She is a deaf* linguist who specializes in phonetics and phonology of signed languages, fieldwork, documentation, and corpora of signed languages, and ethics of working with signed language communities. Professor Hochgesang also works towards making linguistics accessible to the communities, especially the ASL communities, sharing multimodal products via social media and digital repositories.  She has contributed to ongoing efforts to create accessible collections for the ASL communities, most notably as active maintainer of the ASL Signbank. Her most recent ASL documentation projects include the "Philadelphia Signs Project". “Motivated Look at Indicating Verbs in ASL (MoLo)”, “Gallaudet University Documentation of ASL (GUDA)”, and “Documenting the Experiences of the ASL communities in the time of COVID-19 (O5S5 - ASL name derived from ASL variants for “Document COVID”).  

*white, sighted, hearing family, early signer, cisgender

Please note that the ASL interpreters, Emily Shaw and Miako Villanueva, are also my colleagues at Gallaudet University (Department of Interpreting and Translation; Department of Linguistics respectively) and research collaborators. While it may seem a bit unusual to have them interpret my presentation, I invited them because there's no one I trust more to interpret my work than those who have done it with me. It's also a pleasure working with them in any capacity so I'm excited to have them with me.