What is “text” for a sign language?

I started writing this post back in August, and I hurried it a little because of a Limping Chicken article guest written by researchers at the Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College London. I’ve known the DCAL folks for years, and they graciously acknowledged some of my previous writings on this issue. I know they don’t think the textual form of British Sign Language is written English, so I was surprised that they used the term “sign-to-text” in the title of their article and in a tweet announcing the article. After I brought it up, Dr. Kearsy Cormier acknowledged that there was potential for confusion in that term.

So, what does “sign-to-text” mean, and why do I find it problematic in this context? “Sign-to-text” is an analogy with “speech-to-text,” also known as speech recognition, the technology that enables dictation software like DragonSpeak. Speech recognition is also used by agents like Siri to interpret words we say so that they can act on them.

There are other computer technologies that rely on the concept of text. Speech synthesis is also known as text-to-speech. It’s the technology that enables a computer to read a text aloud. It can also be used by agents like Siri and Alexa to produce sounds we understand as words. Machine translation is another one: it typically proceeds from text in one language to text in another language. When the DCAL researchers wrote “sign-to-text” they meant a sign recognition system hooked up to a BSL-to-English machine translation system.

Years ago I became interested in the possibility of applying these technologies to sign languages, and created a prototype sign synthesis system, SignSynth, and an experimental English-to-American Sign Language system.

I realized that all these technologies make heavy use of text. If we want automated audiobooks or virtual assistants or machine translation with sign languages, we need some kind of text, or we need to figure out a new way of accomplishing these things without text. So what does text mean for a sign language?

One big thing I discovered when working on SignSynth is that (unlike the DCAL researchers) many people really think that the written form of ASL (or BSL) is written English. On one level that makes a certain sense, because when we train ASL signers for literacy we typically teach them to read and write English. On another level, it’s completely nuts if you know anything about sign languages. The syntax of ASL is completely different from that of English, and in some ways resembles Mandarin Chinese or Swahili more than English.

It’s bad enough that we have speakers of languages like Moroccan Arabic and Fujianese that have to write in a related language (written Arabic and written Chinese, respectively) that is different in non-trivial ways that take years of schooling to master. ASL and English are so totally different that it’s like writing Korean or Japanese with Chinese characters. People actually did this for centuries until someone smart invented hangul and katakana, which enabled huge jumps in literacy.

There are real costs to this, serious costs. I spent some time volunteering with Deaf and hard-of-hearing fifth graders in an elementary school, and after years of drills they were able to put English words on paper and pronounce them when they saw them. But it became clear to me that despite their obvious intelligence and curiosity, they had no idea that they could use words on paper to send a message, or that some of the words they saw might have a message for them.

There are a number of Deaf people who are able to master English early on. But from extensive reading and discussions with Deaf people, it is clear to me that the experience of these kids is typical of that for the vast majority of Deaf people.

It is a tremendous injustice to a child, and a tremendous waste of that child’s time and attention, for them to get to the age of twelve, at normal intelligence, without being able to use writing. This is the result of portraying English as the written form of ASL or BSL.

So what is the written form of ASL? Simply put, it doesn’t have one, despite several writing systems that have been invented, and it won’t have one until Deaf people adopt one. There will be no sign-to-text until signers have text, in their language.

I can say more about that, but I’ll leave it for another post.

2 thoughts on “What is “text” for a sign language?

  1. Hi Dan! ASL and Mexican Sign Language (LSM), and from what I’ve heard most other sign languages, tend to arrange their sentences with topic-announcing phrases at the beginning (as in “Beans I like”), similarly to Mandarin. ASL and LSM also group nouns into classes and can refer to them with classifier predicates, which I understand is similar to something done in Swahili.

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