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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?

5 Powerful Lessons from “The Silent Child” About Deaf Communication in a Hearing World

Did you watch the Academy Awards last weekend? One of the most striking moments was when Rachel Shenton came to accept an Oscar for her short film “The Silent Child,” which won Best Live Action Short Film. “The Silent Child” is about a deaf girl who struggles to get by without sign language. In keeping with the subject matter, Shenton gave her acceptance speech both verbally and in BSL.

In her speech, Shenton highlighted the difficulties that deaf and hard of hearing people often face, saying “This is happening. Millions of children all over the world live in silence and face communication barriers, and particularly access to education.” The film was created to raise awareness of these challenges.

With that in mind, here are five compelling lessons from The Silent Child about deaf communication in a hearing world. Read more

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

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.

10 Facts About British Sign Language and BSL Interpreters

Did you know that this week is Sign Language Week? This annual observance is promoted by the British Deaf Association to celebrate British Sign language and the British Deaf Community.

To celebrate, here are ten interesting facts about British Sign Language (BSL) and BSL interpreters.

In the UK, there are around 150,000 BSL users.

70,000-87,000 of these people are Deaf and use BSL as their first language. For children who are born deaf, English is often a second or third language.

The first historical mention of BSL is a record of a wedding ceremony conducted partially in sign language in Leicester, 1576.British Sign Language in History

The groom, Thomas Tillsye, was deaf, and so, according to the Parish Book,

“the sayde Thomas, for the expression of his minde instead of words, of his own accorde used these signs…

First he embraced her with his armes, and took her by the hande, putt a ring upon her finger and layde his hande upon her harte, and held his hands towards heaven; and to show his continuance to dwell with her to his lyves ende he did it by closing of his eyes with his hands and digging out of the earthe with his foote, and pulling as though he would ring a bell with divers other signs approved.”

Thomas Braidwood established the first public school for the Deaf in Edinburgh in 1760.

Read more

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.

10 Amazing Sign Language Music Videos

Sign language interpretations of music used to hard to find. Fortunately, that’s changed over the past few years. More and more musicians have sign language interpreters performing at their events. Deaf artists are harnessing the power of Youtube to share their own sign language music videos of their favourite songs, and even musicians who can hear are using the expressive power of sign language in music videos.

Want to see for yourself? Here are ten fantastic sign language music videos!

Please note: When we describe these videos as amazing, awesome, or cool, we’re not trying to trivialise sign language. We think all languages are cool (and deserving of respect). If you appreciate the artistry in these videos, take a moment to learn about the problems Deaf people still face when it comes to day-to-day communication. 

Sia- Soon We’ll Be Found

 

In this video, Australian singer-songwriter Sia signs the lyrics to the song in ASL as she sings. Throughout the video, her hands signing the words appear as shadow puppets, or covered paint, or glowing in the dark – it’s trippy, beautiful and a great way to showcase ASL. (However, it seems like the special effects might make it harder for Deaf viewers to understand her signs in a few parts of the video.).

Pharrell- Happy in ASL

If this ASL version of Pharrell’s “Happy” produced by Deaf students and staff at Deaf Film camp doesn’t make you smile, consider professional help.

Lamb of God’s “Ruin”

This is the latest sign language music video to go viral. Watch as the interpreter breaks out her best metal face to translate Lamb of God’s “Ruin.”

Sign Language Rap Battle with Whiz Khalifa

In 2014, Jimmy Kimmel hosted a “sign language rap battle.” Three popular American sign language interpreters face off, interpreting Whiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” as Whiz himself performs. Although Whiz does not clean up the lyrics, ABC did censor them, so it’s still safe for work, and a lot of fun to watch.

I should note that this video is somewhat controversial amongst the Deaf community because 2 out of 3 of the interpreters are hearing.

Rosa Lee Timm-  What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Rosa Lee Timm is a Deaf performance artist who specialises in music videos and comedy. This ASL interpretation of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” is one of her most popular videos, and for a good reason.

Rosa Lee Timm (and Sherry Hicks)- Uptown Funk

This ASL interpretation of Bruno Mars’  “Uptown Funk” is just incredibly fun to watch.

Pearl Jam- Given to Fly

During a tour in 2000, Eddie Vedder noticed ASL interpreter Kimberly Rae Schaefer and brought her up to share the spotlight for “Given to Fly.” I wish this video focused more on her and less on Eddie Vedder, but it’s still a sweet moment.

Keith Urban Rocking Out with ASL  Interpreter

In this video, from the Jazz Music Festival in Snowmass, Keith Urban performs a duet with the ASL interpreter.  So, she gets to share centre stage instead of being off to the side. One caveat: the audio quality for this video is poor.

Tommy Krångh, the 2015 Eurovision Interpreter


Swedish song language interpreter Tommy Krångh became an overnight sensation in 2015 when he signed for Sweden’s Eurovision finalist competition. This brief clip from the Guardian shows why.

DEAFinitely Dope- No sleep by Whiz Khalifa

This video of DEAFinitely Dope’s Matt Maxey interpreting Whiz Khalifa’s “No Sleep” with an unnamed female friend is infectious and adorable, and the lyrics are uncensored. So, if you click the link, be aware that you will encounter numerous curse words in both English and ASL.

What Does the Fox Say? in ASL

At this point, we know what you’re probably wondering: What does the fox say in sign language? Let the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind attempt to answer that question for you.

As noted above, it’s great to see sign language getting more attention. However, if the only experience you have with sign language is a viral video, you’re not seeing the full picture of the accessibility difficulties faced by the Deaf community. Like all languages, sign languages are both an art form and a means of communication. Thanks to the internet and the increasing popularity of sign language music interpreters, sign language as an art form is more accessible than ever. But when it comes to being able to communicate on a practical, day-to-day level, access is still limited.

If you’d like to make your information more accessible to the Deaf community, we can help.  We offer sign language interpreter services throughout the UK. As you might expect, our interpreting services are primarily in BSL, but if you need another type of sign language, please let us know when you order and we’ll try to accommodate.  We can also provide you with sign language video services and speech-to-text reporting.  For more information, please contact us. 

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.

 

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