Improving Accessibility: Why More Technology Isn’t Always the Answer

Out of all of the different technologies that science fiction writers have dreamed up, has anything lodged itself in the popular imagination as firmly as the “universal translator?” This fascination with shiny new technology extends to improving accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, where it does more harm than good.

Witness the periodic hype around “sign language gloves.” Every couple of years, someone else invents “sign language gloves” that supposedly translate sign language into writing or speech. Journalists cover the devices enthusiastically.

We’ve seen the same tendency this month with the news of a workaround that allows Amazon’s Alexa to understand some signs. This is better than it relying on voice alone (and leaving deaf users out of the loop entirely).

But there’s a problem.  Just as machine translation is still no replacement for a skilled human translator, sign language gloves (and other technologies that rely on machine translation) are not a replacement for sign language interpreters.

Here’s why more technology isn’t always the answer to improving accessibility (as well as some suggestions for improving accessibility that can help).

Sign Language Gloves: Why They Don’t Work

Sign language gloves sound like such a great idea (if you’re not deaf, that is). Why don’t they work?  There are several reasons:

  • Translation is complicated, even between two verbal languages.
  • Translating between a verbal language and a sign language adds an extra layer of complexity.
  • When deaf people use sign language, they’re not just “talking” with their hands. They use their whole bodies and facial expressions. There’s no way a pair of gloves can capture all of that. Other devices that rely on cameras might be able to, but would be a pain for deaf people to use.
  • Because translating between sign language and spoken language is such a big job, the technology involved is too complicated and expensive to be practical.
  • Most of the time, these are projects done by engineering students with little to no input from the deaf community.
  • Most “sign language glove” prototypes only translate fingerspelling.  Do you spell out every word you speak? No? Yeah, neither do deaf people, if they can help it.

The root of the problem is that sign language gloves cater to the wants of the hearing population instead of the needs of the deaf signing community. Read more

The Aloha Poke Controversy: Naming Businesses Across Cultures

Naming a business is hard. Sometimes, it makes sense to look to other languages and cultures for inspiration. But beware: a poorly chosen trademark from another language can turn into a PR disaster later. A Chicago restaurant chain called Aloha Poke found that out the hard way earlier this month.

Here’s the controversy, in a nutshell:

The restaurant specialises in an Americanised version of a Hawaiian staple called “poke,” seasoned raw fish and rice bowls. The restaurant’s founder, Zach Friedlander, is not native Hawaiian in any sense of the word. He first discovered poke in Los Angeles. Aloha Poke has done well in Chicago and plans to expand nationwide.

So, its lawyers began sending out cease-and-desist letters to other restaurants that used the words “Aloha” and “poke” in their names. The targets included small family restaurants owned by native Hawaiians, some of which had been in business for years. Social media outrage ensued. So far, there have been protests, a threatened boycott, thousands of one-star Yelp reviews and a threatened lawsuit.

If you’re considering giving your business or product a name in a foreign language, here are four questions to ask yourself first.

Has the culture you’re taking inspiration from been historically marginalised or oppressed?

If you’re a cultural outsider, you need to be aware of the history of the culture that inspires your business. A little bit of research would have shown that native Hawaiians have historical reasons to be sensitive to and angry about exploitation from the mainland. Read more

The Apple School of International Marketing: 5 Strategies Worth Stealing

Last week, Apple made history when it became the first US company worth $1 trillion. How did they do it? Certainly not by selling their products in only one country using only one language.  In fact, since 2010, the share of Apple’s revenue generated outside of the United States has hovered between 55% and 70%.

What makes Apple such a coveted brand around the world? And what lessons can other businesses learn from Apple’s success? Here are 5 international marketing strategy ideas from Apple that are worth stealing (even if you aren’t Steve Jobs).

Maintain a consistent brand across cultures.

No matter what country you’re in, Apple’s products are the same. Their products, their adverts and their website use the same clean, minimalist design the world over. Apple iPhones all have the same features. The visuals on the website are the same no matter what language option you choose.

We talk quite a bit about the importance of customising your marketing and your website to account for different cultural preferences. But it’s also important that your brand maintains an underlying consistency.

Apple is not known for catering to their customers. When you buy an Apple product, you’re buying Apple’s vision. So, it makes sense that they would customise their content and products less than other brands.  Read more

8 Critically Endangered Languages of South America

When you think of South American languages, you probably think of Spanish and Portuguese. But South America is actually one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world, with over 448 languages from 37 different language families.

Unfortunately, however, many of those languages may soon fall silent. UNESCO classifies 108 South American languages as “critically endangered,” the last step before extinction. Some only have one living speaker. Others have almost no documentation- once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

Here’s the scoop on 8 of these critically endangered languages of South America.

Tehuelche (Argentina)

Number of speakers: 4

Tehuelche is the original language of the Tehuelche people of Patagonia. When the Spanish began to explore Argentina, they encountered giant footprints in the mud and believed they were exploring a land of giants.

Of course, the footprints weren’t those of giant Patagones.  There were left by the moccasin-clad Tehuelche people, going about their business and speaking the Tehuelche language. Today, only 4 Tehuelche speakers remain. The language began to decline in the late 1500s, when many of the Tehuelche tribes began speaking Mapudungun, the language of their Mapuche neighbours, instead. The Spanish conquest sealed the deal, as even the tribes who continued to speak Tehuelche began to speak Spanish.

Pacahuara (Bolivia)

Number of speakers: Somewhere between 4 and 96

Once, the Pacahuara people roamed the Amazon. But the rubber industry decimated them. Now, only a small handful remain, in 2 groups. One group was relocated by Christian missionaries in the 1970s. Only a few elderly members of this group still speak the Pacahuara language. They are often referred to as the “last Pacahuaras.” You can hear their language in this BBC broadcast from 2013.

There is also a group of “uncontacted” Pacahuaras that has refused contact with the rest of the world. Experts believe they number about 50 people in total.

Arikapú (Brazil)

Number of speakers (2)

Until the 20th century, the Arikapú people lived in the Brazilian rainforest, uncontacted by Western civilization. They hunted, fished, gathered and grew some crops. They also bred various types of edible insects, using the larvae as food.

But Western diseases decimated the Arikapú, and many of the survivors were exploited by the rubber industry and relocated to reservations by the government. Today, only 2 Arikapú speakers remain. The rest of the ethnic Arikapú now speak Tuparí and Portuguese.

Guarasu (Brazil and Bolivia)

Number of speakers: (4)

Attempts to collect data on this language in 2015 failed when linguists were unable to get on good terms with the Guarasu chief. The chief, Sara Durán, thought they were working with political enemies and told the linguists, “You don’t know me, we are wild and when I get angry, I take out my arrow… I have many skulls in my yard.”

Guató (Brazil)

Number of speakers: (4)

The Guató people used to be widespread in the southwest region of Mato Grosso, Brazil. They were known as “canoe people” and tended to live along lakes. But settlers in their territory brought smallpox and other diseases, and cattle ranches encroached on their traditional lands. Now only 4 Guató speakers remain.

Kanoê (Brazil)

Number of speakers (5) 

There are two groups of Kanoê Indians living in Brazil- one group, which is integrated into mainstream Brazilian society, and one isolated group that was uncontacted until recently. Only 3 of the first group speak their native language.

Of the second group, only a single family remains. This group sought refuge in the forest, pursued by loggers and ranchers who wanted free use of the land. The ranchers attacked them with bulldozers, and took down their houses and gardens, all the while denying that there were any indigenous people in the forest to begin with.

One day, the men of the Kanoê tribe left on an expedition. According to Povos Indigenas no Brazil,  they hoped to find neighbouring indigenous tribes and negotiate marriages for their daughters. They never came back.  When the women realized that all of their husbands and older sons had died, they decided to commit mass suicide. One woman, Tutuá, changed her mind at the last minute, and saved herself, her son, her daughter, her sister and her niece.

The man singing in the video above is her son, Pura.

 

Oro Win (Brazil)

Number of speakers: 6

The Oro Win live in Rondônia, Brazil. They were enslaved by rubber tappers in the 1960s, then forced off their lands in the 1980s. In 1991, they were finally given their land back and were able to return. But by that time, their language had almost completely disappeared. This language has a bit more hope than most of the others on this list, as the Oro Win have begun to teach it in schools.

Yaghan (Chile)

Number of speakers: (1)

The Yaghan people once lived in Tierra del Fuego, where they stunned European explorers by walking around mostly naked despite the frigid temperatures, gathering around the fires that gave Tierra del Fuego its name. But European diseases took their toll, and European settlers took their land. Now, 90-year-old Cristina Calderon is the last speaker.

That said, she’s been working with linguists for years to record and preserve the language. And now that the atmosphere toward native languages has become more welcoming, Yaghan is being taught in local kindergartens.

If nothing else, Yagan is likely to live on as a piece of internet trivia. The word “mamihlapinatapai,” usually translated as “To look at each other, hoping that either will offer to do something, which both parties much desire done but are unwilling to do,” has made its way into various online articles of untranslatable words.

It may be too late for many of the languages on this list, but many other minority languages still have a shot at survival. At K International, we’re all in favour of language preservation, and one way to do that is to make it easier for people to use their native languages in daily life. If you’re looking for a quote on a translation project, check out the services we offer and feel free to contact us. We’d love to hear from you!

Blog Posts
Portfolio
Pages

Available Pages

Categories
Monthly

Archives by Month: