More than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, which can be problematic when the first few years of a child’s life are critical to language development. But a new dictionary developed by a Boston University professor and her colleagues across the U.S. could change the way both the hearing and deaf learn American Sign Language.

Traditional American Sign Language dictionaries are alphabetical. The thing is, sign language isn’t alphabetical. And for Naomi Caselli, a Boston University language and literacy professor, and her colleagues at Tufts University and San Diego University, it was time to make a dictionary organized to reflect the way the deaf communicate.

We wanted to offer a kind of dictionary that's based on ASL that's really a kind of a native dictionary,” Caselli said.

So they created ASL-LEX, a lexicon of words organized by hand shape and how often the signs are used. Each cluster demonstrates how the words relate to each other based on hand shape. Signs also can be searched by parts of speech, like nouns and verbs. It’s a mission that’s near to Caselli’s heart. Her dad is deaf and he had no access to language until he was a teenager. It's called language deprivation, and she doesn’t want other kids to go through what he experienced.

Language deprivation has really serious consequences,” said Caselli. “If you don't have language acquisition and a language foundation within the first couple of years, you might never fully catch up.”

There is both a local and nationwide push to pass legislation, called LEAD-K, requiring that all deaf children are tested to make sure they are on track in their language skills, whether they are learning English or American Sign Language. There has been an ongoing debate for decades among professionals who work with deaf kids as to whether their main language should be spoken or sign.           

Caselli says the real focus should be on whether a child has language at all, and ASL-LEX could help address the early introduction of sign language in a number of ways. For hearing parents who don’t know sign language and have a deaf child, they can search for a word on the ASL-LEX website, and the video embedded in the upper left corner will provide a translation. 

For deaf children, it opens up the world of their language, says ASL specialist Megan Malzkuhn. She teaches at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Allston.

I can see that it is helping the students become aware of the linguistics of sign language. They are learning that sign language isn’t just a bunch of signs that you use to communicate, and are able to think more deeply about the structure of language,” she said. “It is a great way to help them think about sign language in more sophisticated ways.”

Malzkuhn has been using ASL-LEX in her 4th grade class and says it’s also a great tool to learn wordplay and rhyming techniques.

In English poetry, rhyming tends to be based on sound, and words and syllables are strung together with repetition to build rhythmic phrases. The same kind of thing is true for ASL,” said Malzkuhn. “ASL poems can have fantastic rhythmic structure, and often use signing rhymes — signs that look similar to one another.” 

While ASL-LEX could bring more poetry into the halls of the Horace Mann School, back at Boston University, it’s Caselli’s goal to use the dictionary to help create benchmarks for testing the language skills of deaf children from the day they’re born.

“There aren't a ton of great tests for ASL available right now, especially for kids from zero to five," Caselli said. "ASL-LEX is allowing us to do that because now we know what the vocabulary of ASL is. Now we can go out and say, ‘OK, do kids know these words? At 18 months old, how many signs should you know? Which signs are those going to be at 26 months old? Are you able to develop language on milestone or are you falling behind?’ Right now, there really isn’t [that kind of testing].”

It sounds like that is about to change.