Tour de CLARIN: Interview with Tommi Jantunen

Submitted by on 31 May 2017

Tour de CLARIN highlights prominent User Involvement (UI) activities of a particular CLARIN national consortium. This time the focus is on Finland and Tommi Jantunen, a linguist specialising in the Finnish Sign Language working at the University of Jyväskylä. The following interview took place via Skype on Tuesday, 23 May 2017 and was conducted and transcribed by Jakob Lenardič. 


1.  Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and your current work?

My name is Tommi Jantunen and I am an academic research fellow at the Department of Language and Communication Studies at the University of Jyväskylä. I have an MA in General Linguistics from the University of Helsinki and a PhD in Finnish Sign Language from the University of Jyväskylä. I am currently running the last year of my five-year-long project ProGram, which is funded by the Academy of Finland and in which my colleagues and I are investigating the grammar and prosody of the Finnish Sign Language. At the University of Jyväskylä, the Finnish Sign Language is one of the main fields that people can get a degree in and I was one of the first people to obtain a PhD degree in Finnish Sign Language at our university almost ten years ago in 2008. I don’t think that there are many universities in Europe and even in the world in general where one can fully focus on studying sign languages as a major subject, on par with more traditional fields like Finnish or English studies, so it’s really excellent that our university offers this opportunity.

2.  How did you hear about CLARIN and how did you get involved?

I think I knew about CLARIN even before I became directly involved with our national consortium. This is probably so because all Finnish universities are part of the FIN-CLARIN network so if you are a researcher working with languages it’s almost impossible not to hear about CLARIN ERIC. I think I became involved a few years ago at the start of our current project ProGram. We needed to publish the data that we were starting to work on, so I contacted our FIN-CLARIN UI representative Mietta Lennes from the University of Helsinki and she was happy to get our project involved with the consortium.

3.  How has CLARIN influenced your way of working and how was this received in your research community?

I think the easiest way to approach this question is from the following point of view. If you’re a researcher and you are in the process of applying for research funding, one of the prerequisites for obtaining funding is that you draft a plan of how the data that you are working on can be related to and included within research infrastructures such as FIN-CLARIN. In other words, it is the funding agencies that require researchers to connect their data with a ready-made infrastructure so that the data become openly available. Related to this, FIN-CLARIN has proven itself to be an exceptionally good collaborator – whenever we write new applications for research funding, it is extremely easy for us to connect our work with the FIN-CLARIN and CLARIN ERIC infrastructures.

When it comes to sign language, we unfortunately can’t use much of the existing services within the infrastructures because of the specificity of our field, which requires specialised tools and resources. However, we are building our own tools and services in collaboration with FIN-CLARIN, which we of course plan to make available within the FIN-CLARIN repository – that is, the Language Bank of Finland. For instance, my colleagues are currently compiling a very exhaustive Finnish Sign Language corpus, which is planned to be made available through FIN-CLARIN and which will mark the end of the project.

4.  Could you describe the status of the Finnish Sign Language?

I think its status is relatively good, especially in comparison with some other countries. The Finnish Sign Language is recognized in the Finnish Constitution as a national minority language and there’s a sign language law that clarifies certain linguistic etc. rights for sign language users. Recently, the Finnish Sign Language came into the spotlight at the 2009 Eurovision song contest, as one of the candidates for the Finnish representative was a deaf signer. Apart from the Finnish Sign Language, there’s also the Finland-Swedish Sign Language, which is a kind of minority-within-a-minority language spoken by relatively few people in the Swedish speaking areas of Finland. Linguistically, these two sign languages are very close to each other. Ultimately, it is a political decision that governs the question what is a specific language and what isn’t.

5.  To what extent in your opinion is the sign language research community benefiting from digital tools and resources, such as the ones provided by CLARIN infrastructure?

I think one of the most important, and also the most invisible, aspects of what CLARIN ERIC and the national consortia have been doing is the work related to standardisation and the resolution of metadata issues. I don’t know if we would even be able to do our corpus work if it weren’t for the standards created in FIN-CLARIN. The LAT platform is also extremely important, as it allows us to publish our visual data. For instance, on the LAT platform we have already published a richly-annotated video corpus of the Finnish Sign Language, which is available here. This corpus comprises a rather small sample that is much more deeply annotated than our final exhaustive corpus is going to be and I also use this corpus to showcase Finnish Sign Language data to my students and colleagues.

6.  What kind of specific methodological and technical challenges does a researcher working on sign language face with respect to the available infrastructure?

The biggest challenge is related to the videos, which serve as basically the only way you can record and compile sign language data. On the one hand, working with videos is challenging from a technical perspective; it is difficult to search through visual data and they take up a lot of storage space. On the other hand, videos raise many privacy and legal issues and we have to be extremely careful when it comes to getting informed consent. One of the problems we had in connection with this is that there was very little information about the necessary steps we needed to take in order to fulfil all the legal requirements. Additionally, it has been my experience that annotating the sign language data is extremely time consuming, more so than typical speech data.

7.  How would you recommend your colleagues to get involved with CLARIN and start using the available infrastructure?

My advice to all researchers who are interested in working with languages is that they contact their respective UI representatives. In Finland, Mietta Lennes has been doing an excellent job in promoting FIN-CLARIN and CLARIN-ERIC. She has taken part of practically every linguistic conference in Finland where she has kept FIN-CLARIN very visible. In terms of visibility, I think we introduce CLARIN even to our BA students, so a researcher in Finland can’t really avoid knowing something about CLARIN. I think a more important question here is when is it that a researcher needs to know something about CLARIN. This is at the point when you start doing your own research and when you apply for funding – as I’ve said, the funding agencies require that the data obtained in your research get connected with the existing infrastructures, and FIN-CLARIN, as well as CLARIN ERIC in general, provides an excellent infrastructure for this.

8.  What resources, tools and services from CLARIN would you recommend to your colleagues? What would you recommend CLARIN to do in order to attract more researchers from your community?

I’m mostly familiar with the previously mentioned LAT platform and the ELAN tools, which we have been using to annotate our visual data. It is also great that such tools are available as web services, which makes them very easy to use. As to the second question, I think that FIN-CLARIN has been doing an exemplary job already, so I think it’s impossible to recommend anything in terms of improvement. Like I said, Mietta has done an excellent job in the promotion of FIN-CLARIN. Last year, the Roadshow event organised by FIN-CLARIN, which took place in autumn, also reached our university and I gave a presentation on Finnish Sign Language then.

9.  What’s your vision for CLARIN 10 years from now?

I would like to see more and more video materials and tools related to sign language processing in the repository.

10.  Describe CLARIN in three words.

Internationality, openness and user-friendliness!

Click here to read more about Tour de CLARIN


Images: Tommi Jantunen


Click here to read more about Tour de CLARIN