Language encounter

I recently came across a Ukraine-based project called “Enable Talk”, which is a way to make digital sign language translation mobile.

According to the website, the device consists of a pair of gloves worn by the sign language user, which contains 14 flexible sensors, a microcontroller and a Bluetooth transmitter on each hand.

The sensors instantly and continually detect the words that are being signed, and this information is then sent to the Enable Talk app on the conversation partner’s smartphone. The app then uses software to turn the information from the gloves into the corresponding sounds.

Pretty cool technology – I just wonder how accurate the outcome would be. I usually get some puzzled looks when I tell people that language is not interpreted word for word. It just doesn’t happen.

Every language is unique to its people or culture and grammar and sentence structure always differ, so to try to interpret or translate a language word for word will create nothing short of a royal mess filled with inaccuracies and misinterpretations.

In addition to that, you will almost never find a deaf person in conversation who signs word for word — it just doesn’t happen, and for them even moreso since body language and facial expressions play a critical part in sign language.

I remember when I was younger and watched the Miss Universe pageant on television, I always wondered when they interviewed a contestant whose first language wasn’t English why the interpreter always waited so long to respond when the contestant was giving her answer. It’s only after becoming an interpreter that I understood why there was that delay. They had to listen well first, understand then translate since it had to be presented in a way that was clear so that an accurate response could follow.

The other thing I wonder about these gloves is if it will be able to work in a specific territory or if it will be ASL (American Sign Language) compatible. You see, while ASL is a widely used sign language in many countries, each country has signs which are unique to it. Not to mention that some signs mean one thing in one territory and something totally different in another.

So unless you come up with a way to differentiate different sign languages, my guess is that ASL would be the one of choice. But the gloves are still a work in progress so I’ll wait to see the final results.

I also wonder about the sentence structure formation. If we’re not signing word for word, how do the gloves translate into accurate sentences? There are some things that don’t go on your hands but rather your body, so I’m not sure how this will be done.

In addition to that, what happens when you twitch or just touch your arm slightly to soothe an itch or shift the weight from one leg to another if you’ve been putting the pressure on one while standing and your hands move to accommodate the switch. How does this register with the gloves since they’re supposed to be very sensitive?

At the end of the day, I do believe the makers truly want to see the deaf communicating as much as possible with the hearing; however we need to make sure that whatever we do is done in the best interest of the deaf as it’s the integrity of their language that needs to be kept intact. While I understand the need for there to be communication between all parties, I think that non-signers/hearing people need to make an effort to learn the language of the deaf.

Deaf people do everything to fit in. They try to lip read, try to learn as much English as possible so they could write notes back and forth to communicate, try to be sociable just so they could feel included but yet we don’t seem to want to put in even a quarter of that effort to learn sign language.

Not only do I think it’s unfair but very unreasonable, especially since they are the ones at a disadvantage with limited resources and the ones who have to work the hardest to fit into a society whose ears “work”.

On our path to progression, let us always be mindful of our ultimate goal which is to make inclusion a way of life for all people and not an exception. I look forward to more creative and innovative ways for this to happen and hope that sometime in the near future inclusion is not just a buzz word but a lifestyle.

Let me take this opportunity to thank all of you who have supported me throughout the year and on behalf of my family wish all of you a wonderful Christmas and a healthy, prosperous and New Year.

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