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BSL Translation in Your Hand

Machine translation has proven a difficult nut to crack, even for written and spoken languages. That’s even more true for sign languages, though we’ve written about some previous innovations in the field like the Fingual translation glove.

However, that may be about to change. Researchers at Aberdeen University are working on providing sign language users with translation capabilities on their smartphones and laptops, and they’re almost there. In the Scotsman, Dr Ernesto Compatangelo, the director of the project, explained the ultimate goal of the project, called the Portable Sign Language Translator (PSLT):

“The user signs into a standard camera integrated into a laptop, netbook, Smartphone or other portable device such as a tablet. Their signs are immediately translated into text which can be read by the person they are conversing with. The intent is to develop an application – an “app” in Smartphone terms – that is easily accessible and could be used on different devices.”

The technology is being developed with British Sign Language (BSL), but can easily be made to work with other sign languages as well.  Additionally, users can program the software to recognize gestures of their own, allowing them to get around limitations in sign language vocabulary.

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Dr Compatangelo gave the example of a student who wishes to learn a trade such as joinery, and needs an easy way to express words like “dovetail joint,” which are so specialized that BSL does not have gestures for them.

Meanwhile, on MIT’s Technology Review blog, David Zax gave another example:

“Plenty of new jargon and terminology is constantly emerging in computer science, but American Sign Language is unlikely to keep up with all that jargon. You could use the app to invent signs to express these bits of jargon, saving you the trouble of having to spell out every word letter by letter.”

Another potential use for an app like this would be to provide people who are learning sign language an easy way to practice. In the Scotsman, Dr Compatangelo explained:

“As a learning tool, the PSLT can be easily and effectively used by those who are learning to sign. So far, these learners needed a sign language expert in front of them to check that they were able to sign correctly. This is a problem, due to the scarce availability of sign language experts and to the consequent cost of such training.”

Another possible use? The ability to control your household appliances with gestures, which would be especially useful to people with mobility issues.

GPs Urged to Use More Sign Language Services

Concerns were raised about the lack of sign language services provided by doctor’s surgeries in the UK at the Deaf Day 2009 event in London on the 4th April. People attending the event signed a petition which demands that surgeries use online software called Sign Translate.

SignTranslate is currently a free service for GPs in England, thanks to funding from Sign Health, the health care charity for deaf people.

It is essential that the NHS provide services which mean it can cater for all. Translation services are essential for good communication between the doctor and their patient. Foreign immigrants also often require translation services within the medical environment as the communication must be clear at all times. The patient will feel more comfortable communicating in their preferred or first language.

This free BSL service from SignTranslate was set up in June 2008 and will be free until June 2009. After June 2009 the GPs surgeries will have to pay for this service. Many other companies also provide sign language services at a reasonable cost.

London’s First Deaf Church to Close

It’s the end of an era as London’s first church built specifically for deaf worshipers will be closing soon, the BBC reports.

St Saviour’s Church opened for services on Oxford street in 1873. 50 years later, it relocated to Acton. According to the London Deaf Church website,  the place where the original church once stood is now a Selfridge’s.

The old building was specially designed to make it as easy as possible for deaf worshipers to get the most out of services, with a layout that allowed everyone in the room to watch the preacher sign.  Historian Mike Gulliver explained the details of the design to the BBC:

“There was no rood screen, or choir, or organ,” says Gulliver. “It was built more in the style of a non-Anglican, non-conformist church.” There were also twin pulpits, one for a signing preacher and one to accommodate an interpreter for hearing visitors.

While most hearing Anglican churches face east, St Saviour’s Oxford Street faced north. This was for light reasons, says Gulliver. It was thought that a steady stream of light throughout the day was better for deaf people’s communication.

The downstairs level of the original church was a social club, a gathering place for the deaf community. It was decorated with artwork made by church members.

Now, however, many of the older parishioners are gone and the younger generation have chosen other places to worship, either renting space for sign language services at other churches or by using a BSL interpreter. Services for the deaf are only held at St Saviour’s once a month;  the old church is now up for sale.

According to Bristol University’s Dr. William John Lyons, St Saviour’s Church represented a tremendous victory for the London Deaf community:

“With the right to worship effectively standing for other rights—to education, to work, to citizenship and membership of society—St Saviour’s stood for nearly fifty years as a symbolic hub for the recognition of the London Deaf community. “

On one hand, it’ll be sad to see it go. On the other hand, it seems like it’s served its purpose as deaf people now have more options — and that’s probably a good thing.

British Sign Language

Note: If you need any of our BSL Interpreters please use our sales page to order >> BSL Interpreters <<.

We’ve just finished producing a British Sign Language video for one of our clients in London. I’ve added a sample below (and on youtube).

Hayley (our signer) was filmed in front of a green screen/chroma key (in HD) which was later removed and replaced with the image of London.

 

BSL Dialects Fading Away

British Sign Language (BSL) is used by approximately 125,000 deaf adults and 20,000 children in the UK.  But they don’t all sign the same way. Just as spoken English varies depending on where you are, British Sign Language has regional dialects of its own.  Sometimes, BSL signers from different regions of the UK have to stop and compare completely different signs for the same word!

Signs can even vary between different towns and cities. For example, Manchester has its own unique system of number signs.

Now, however, the BBC reports these sign language dialects are fading away. A recent study of 250 BSL users from across the UK found that younger signers were using fewer of these unique regional signs.

The lead researcher behind the study, Dr Kearsy Cormier, explained her findings to the BBC:

“Some regional signs appear to be in decline, as younger people are using them less, with some rarely used at all. The variation is at the level of vocabulary rather than accent or grammar, and similar examples in English would be plimsolls, daps, sannies, gutties, or pumps for canvas shoes.

There are several possible reasons for the decline. First, prior to the 1940’s, deaf children in British schools were encouraged to lip read and finger spell rather than to sign. BSL was taught “unofficially,” person-to-person, in schools for the deaf. So there was a lot of room for regional signs to spring up, as students at each school signed a little bit differently.

Since the 1970’s, BSL has increasingly been taught as a subject and used as a language of instruction for deaf students, and so it has become more standardized.

Also, many schools for the deaf have closed as resources are now available to mainstream deaf students and allow them to learn alongside their hearing peers.

Third, media such as television is increasingly available in BSL, further contributing to the trend of standardization.

Finally, people move around more than they used to.  So, there is less opportunity for deaf children to grow up signing a regional dialect.

Should the decline of regional sign language dialects be viewed as a tragedy, or as part of a natural language evolution? It depends on who you ask.

Charlie Swinbourne, editor of the Limping Chicken, a popular blog aimed at the deaf and hard of hearing, waxed nostalgic about the different sign language dialects to the BBC:

“Regional variation is something that is part of the richness of the culture and how the language has developed and it is a special thing. When signs start disappearing, or people get older or stop using them, there is a sense of who will keep those variations alive? You feel like it could all change quite quickly and there are people who do try to keep it alive.”

Meanwhile, Paul Redfern, from the British Deaf Association considers it part of the natural evolution of the language:

“The vast majority of people probably don’t really think about it, because it is language, and it is a living language, it is not dead or frozen, and languages change and languages reflect what is happening to you in a contemporary sense.”

What do you think?

Multilingual DVD Production

This page is a step by step guide how we made a Sign Language DVD for the Scottish Prison Service.

The Project

The brief was to produce an interactive DVD containing induction material for a collection of prisons in Scotland. The Scottish Prison Service wanted the DVD to form part of the induction process that all prisoners go through on their first few days in jail. Being in an on-screen format makes the information more understandable (and therefore more valuable) than the printed alternative. Read more