When you are a hearing person living in a noisy world, you tend to take communication for granted – whether face-to-face, on the telephone, watching TV, or YouTube videos. And you can respond in kind, knowing that you will be understood by the other person, as long as they, too, have the capacity to hear. We take it for granted so much that we forget that it is another world for those who are either deaf or very hard of hearing. Being able to communicate as a deaf person in a hearing world may mean learning to use sign language, having everything subtitled, or else using an interpreter.
The Different Ways of Signing
It is a common assumption that there is a universal sign language, understood by all deaf people around the world, but this is mistaken. For a start, sign language is not one language, but many. There are around 70 million deaf people in the world, who use sign language as their first language1, and it is estimated that around two hundred sign languages are being used in the world on any given day.2 The actual number is impossible to know and there are probably many more, as deaf communities in isolated areas make up their own creolized versions.
Even in countries that use the same basic spoken language, such as the USA and UK, the sign languages used are so different when it comes to the vocabulary, that consequently, two deaf people from either country are unlikely to understand each other. For example, the ASL (American Sign Language) sign for ‘deaf’ is the same as the BSL (British Sign Language) sign for ‘hearing person.’ In addition, ASL uses one hand for spelling the alphabet while BSL uses two hands. And the USA and UK are not the only countries with this problem – deaf people in Germany and Austria would also have many difficulties in understanding each other. In fact, compared with the hearing world, communication between different languages in the deaf world is a great deal more complicated – it is like a silent Tower of Babel.
Just to complicate matters further, ASL isn’t the only signing language used in America. There is also PSE (Pidgin Signed English), which is very widely used and is a mixture of ASL vocabulary and English word order. Finally, there is SEE (Signing Exact English), which again uses basic ASL vocabulary but also includes signs to reflect prefixes, word endings, and tenses. SEE is much harder to learn and takes a lot of concentration, but it does provide the signer with a greater vocabulary. In the UK, the alternative or complementary sign languages to BSL are SSE (Sign Supported English), which is often used alongside BSL. SSE is particularly useful in schools where the child still has limited hearing and can speak, as it uses English grammar structures, which BSL does not.
Until very recently, sign languages were not recognized as actual languages in their own right but were seen as visual representations of the spoken word. In fact, they have their own vocabularies, in which one sign may represent a whole phrase, as well as using different syntax and including visual cues, such as facial expressions, shrugs, etc. In fact, it wasn’t until 2003 that the UK government granted BSL the status of an official language. Consequently, it now has the standing of an official minority language, on a par with Welsh and Gaelic, and has seen increased funding for the deaf community.3
The History of Sign Language
Despite its lack of official recognition, signing is not a new thing. It was first mentioned by Plato in his 5th century dialogue, Cratylus, in which Socrates says, “If we hadn’t a voice or tongue, and wanted to express things to one another, wouldn’t we try to make signs by moving our hands, head, and the rest of our body, just as dumb people do at present?” And yet, despite such ancient recognition, deaf communities and their languages have been pretty much ignored throughout history. It was even thought that deaf people did not have the intelligence to be educated, and it wasn’t until the 17th century that things began to change. In 1648, a deaf man, ‘Master Babington,’ was reported to be very skilled in the use of his fingers to spell out words. In 1680, a Scot by the name of George Dalgarno wrote Didascalocophus or the Deaf and Dumb man’s tutor, containing a signing alphabet using the fingers, joints, and palms of both hands. The vowels described in this book are still used in BSL, Auslan, and New Zealand Sign Language today. Eighteen years later, a pamphlet called the Digiti Lingua, by an unknown author, was published. This contained pictures of two sets of 26 handshapes, 17 of which can still be found in today’s two-handed alphabet.
Difficulties With Sign Language Interpretation
Mental disorders, learning difficulties or brain injury can cause problems with being able to sign in an accepted language. Instead, those affected either make up their own way of communicating or, if they are able, they can learn a simpler system called Makaton, which uses signs and symbols. In these cases, specialist interpreters are required. For those without the cognitive ability to learn or use any sort of sign language, circumstances such as medical emergencies and legal situations can prove to be very difficult and may result in a loss of the deaf person’s rights to the correct treatment or advice. It has been found that the best people to communicate with deaf people unable to sign at all are interpreters who are also deaf, as they are more able to pick up on the subtle physical signals and expressions that may not be as readily seen by a hearing interpreter.
When information needs to be relayed between a non-signing deaf person and a hearing person, a deaf interpreter (called a Deaf Relay Interpreter in the UK) will usually work with a hearing interpreter. How it works is that the hearing person will speak to the hearing interpreter, who will then use sign language to relay the information to the deaf interpreter who will then, as closely as he or she can, impart the message to the deaf client in a way that they can understand. And of course, it works the other way around too. When it works, it works well, but there can be problems in finding the interpreters needed in the instance of the situation arising.
Another area where it can be challenging to find the right mix of interpreters is where the deaf person understands a different language (either spoken or signed) to the person they are trying to communicate with. Multilingual signing interpreters and translators are not as numerous as their speaking equivalents, and often more than one may be needed. With greater numbers of people becoming displaced or immigrating to new countries, this is becoming a growing problem for both social care, medical and legal authorities.
Technology and Bureaucracy Lead the Way
Just as sign languages are now beginning to be recognized, deaf people are also gaining new rights and accessibility in the hearing world. In particular, conferences, educational presentations, and governmental institutions are now having to provide assistance to any deaf or hard of hearing attendees, whether through technology or traditional signing interpreters. Specialist educational establishments, such as Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. are also leading the way in establishing equality for deaf and hard of hearing students.
Gallaudet was founded in 1856 by Amos Kendall in northeast Washington, D.C. and it was the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Since that time, it has grown both in size and prestige, enrolling nearly 2000 new students every year. It offers over 40 majors at undergraduate level and many other programs to serve every learning level. Students learn in a bilingual environment, using American Sign Language and English, but its intake of scholars comes from all over the world making for a multicultural and multilingual environment. Social rights have always been a top priority and it was students from Gallaudet that helped to get the Americans with Disabilities Act passed.
The Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990 and prohibited any form of discrimination against disabled people whether it is in the work place, public services, telecommunications or businesses, shops, places of entertainment or education. It addresses issues of accessibility, which, for deaf people means that they are entitled to help with communicating with hearing people in any public facility. This means that the law requires these facilities to provide qualified interpreters, written materials, or a person able to take notes. A similar act was passed in the UK in 1995.
The use of new technologies also has a part to play in facilitating equal access. One of these is the induction (or hearing) loop. These loops deliver the sound straight to the hearing aid via an electromagnetic signal. Such a system cuts out many of the sound distortions and background noise that often make hearing difficult. Additionally, captioning on video screens have helped deaf people have access to what is being said in lectures, conferences, and speeches. The role of the signing interpreter has also become more recognized, and you will often see a signing interpreter standing alongside a politician or a speaker, providing a valuable service for those unable to either hear or lip-read.
When it comes to international conferences, multilingual interpreters are perhaps the most valuable, and the least available. Until very recently, many deaf people working for the European Parliament felt that the provision of sign language interpreters was given a lesser priority than spoken language interpreters. However, on 23rd November 2016, a resolution on providing better accessibility for the deaf via sign language interpreters was overwhelmingly voted in.4 In theory, this should now lead to more resources for the training and provision of multi-lingual signing interpreters.
Telecommunication between non-hearing people has also become much more straightforward with the advent of face-to-face screen communication. Skype and Apple’s Facetime, for example, mean that signing can take place in real time across distances. Things are a little bit more complicated if a deaf person needs to contact, for example, a customer services line staffed by hearing people, but thankfully, technology has once again stepped into the breach. Video relay services provide assistance as a sort of ‘middleman’ where the deaf person uses a computer screen to communicate via video to a hearing sign language interpreter. These interpreters then contact the customer services and relay the message and thereby facilitate the communication. This kind of service is now also being trialed in banks so that deaf customers can make use of a remote interpreter.
Machine Translation – A Future Miracle?
Another area where advances have been made is in the world of machine translation for sign languages, evolving in parallel with the machine translation of spoken languages. (Please read The Evolution of Machine Translation) Unlike the spoken word, sign languages are very visual and so need cameras to map the different movements, expressions, and postures that are used. This, paired with the ever-improving technology of neural networks and machine learning, is producing some exciting new developments.
KinTrans and SignAll are just two of the new systems to be developed in this field, both of them using deaf and hearing experts in computers and linguistics. KinTrans is an American company, based in Dallas. It uses one algorithm to translate the signs, and another to create a grammatically correct sentence – or as near as. It works by a deaf or hard of hearing person approaching the specialized 3D camera which uses the Microsoft Kinect software and signing into it. The software then converts the sign language into its spoken equivalent and from there into text. At present, it can translate to and from both ASL and Arabic sign language with, it claims, 98% accuracy. Future versions able to use Portuguese Sign Language and Indo-Pakistani Sign Language are planned.
SignAll is based in Hungary but is collaborating with Gallaudet University in Washington DC to put together what it claims will be the most comprehensive database of sign language words and phrases in the world. Like KinTrans, it also uses cameras to record the signer, including how they use facial expressions to articulate, for example, a question. However, SignAll is still behind KinTrans in development, both with its database and testing.
Although in their early stages, it is hoped that these signing translation systems will one day be widely used where deaf people need to communicate with hearing people in an easy, intuitive manner. And, with further building of sign language databases, it is possible to see a world where lack of hearing will no longer be a barrier and where translation and interpretation involving different languages will no longer require several human interpreters. However, there is one caveat: at present machine translation is still nowhere near as accurate as a human being, even when the task is just translation between two languages. Much more research and funding are required and, as usual, this is often harder to come by when the beneficiaries are from what could be considered as a minority group. Also initially, such devices may prove to be expensive to buy.
Nevertheless, the foundations have certainly been laid, both through international legislation recognizing the rights of deaf people to interpreters, and also the application of new technologies to the problem. For now, the answer may lie primarily with the recruitment and training of more sign language interpreters, particularly multilingual and deaf relay specialists, but at least the premise is now clear: deaf people need to hear and be heard.
- Sign Language, World Federation of the Deaf, accessed athttps://wfdeaf.org/human-rights/crpd/sign-language/ on 01/28/2018
- Sally Chalk, ‘Do We Know How Many Sign Languages There Are In The World?’, Clarion UK, 03/18/2014, accessed at https://www.clarion-uk.com/know-many-sign-languages-world/ on 01/28/2018
- Sarah Womack, Sign Language Wins Official Recognition, The Telegraph, 03/19/2003, accessed at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1425033/Sign-language-wins-official-recognition.html, 01/28/2018
- Adam Kosa, ‘The European Parliament Approved On A Resolution On Sign Language And Sign Language Interpreters,’ European Union of the Deaf, 11/24/2016, accessed at https://www.eud.eu/news/european-parliament-voted-resolution-sign-language-and-sign-language-interpreters/ on 01/28/2018