Why do people make ASL translations of written documents?

My friend Josh was puzzled to see that the City of New York offers videos of some of its documents, translated from the original English into American Sign Language, on YouTube. I didn’t know of a good, short explainer online, and nobody responded when I asked for one on Twitter, so I figured I’d write one up.

The short answer is that ASL and English are completely different language, and knowing one is not that much help learning the other. It’s true that some deaf people are able to lipread, speak and write fluent English, this is generally because they have some combination of residual hearing, talent, privilege and interest in language. Many deaf people need to sign for daily conversation, even if they grew up with hearing parents.

It is incredibly difficult to learn to read and write a language that you can’t speak, hear, sign or see. As part of my training in sign linguistics I spent time with two deaf fifth grade students in an elementary school in Albuquerque. These were bright, curious children, and they spent hours every day practicing reading, writing, speaking and even listening – they both had cochlear implants.

After visiting these kids several times, talking with them in ASL and observing their reading and writing, I realized that at the age of eleven they did not understand how writing is used to communicate. I asked them to simply pass notes to each other, the way that hearing kids did well before fifth grade. They did each write things on paper that made the other laugh, but when I tried giving them specific messages and asking them to pass those messages on in writing, they had no idea what I was asking for.

These kids are in their thirties now, and they may well be able to read and write English fluently. At least one had a college-educated parent who was fluent in both English and ASL, which helps a lot. Other factors that help are the family’s income level and a general skill with languages. Many deaf people have none of these advantages, and consequently never develop much skill with English.

The City could even print some of these documents in ASL. Several writing systems have been created for sign languages, some of them less complete than others. For a variety of reasons, they haven’t caught on in Deaf communities, so using one of those would not help the City get the word out about school closures.

The reasons that the City government provides videos in ASL are thus that ASL is a completely different language from English, many deaf people do not have the exceptional language skills necessary to read a language they don’t really speak, and the vast majority of deaf people don’t read ASL.

Remembering Alan Hudson

On Saturday I found out that Alan Hudson died. Alan was my doctoral advisor at the University of New Mexico until his retirement in 2005, and a source of support after that.

I first met Alan when I visited the UNM Linguistics Department in 1997. Alan welcomed me into his office with a broad smile, and asked, “So Angus, have you made up your mind about whether you want to come here?”

“Well…” I said. I had been accepted into the PhD program, but had just come from a very discouraging encounter with another professor, and was ready to give up and go home. Before I could continue, Alan said, “Is there anything I can say to convince you?” I replied, “Well, I guess you just did.”

Alan was not a big name in linguistics; he never published a book. I regularly had to tell people that my advisor was not Dick Hudson. But Alan had a profound insight about the sociology of language that changed my career trajectory and my thinking about language and social justice.

In a seminar on Societal Bilingualism the next year, Alan led us through the case studies laid out by Joshua Fishman, his own advisor, in his book Reversing Language Shift. Fishman’s book is of interest to anyone concerned with language “death” (a problematic metaphor unless the language users themselves are being killed). As a Dubliner who had become fluent in Irish through compulsory government schooling, Alan cared deeply about his national language, but he did not have high hopes for it recovering its status as the primary language of Ireland.

Fishman argues that we can prevent large numbers of people abandoning a language by establishing “diglossia” – arrangements where language H is used for some functions and language L is used for others. Charles Ferguson had shown in 1949 that diglossic arrangements tend to be stable over time. Fishman believed that if language users can establish similar functional separations, they can stop language shift.

Drawing in part on his own research in Ireland and Switzerland, Alan observed that the cases Fishman categorized as diglossia did not fit with Ferguson’s examples. The key factor in Ferguson’s cases was that there were no children in the speech community who are native speakers of H: no child speakers of High German in Switzerland, no child speakers of Metropolitan French in Haiti, etc. In Ireland, by contrast, there are millions of English-speaking children, and in the Netherlands Frisian-speaking children go to school with Dutch-speaking peers.

The result of this contact is that most of these children eventually shift to the higher-prestige, better-paying language, and will not pass their native languages on to their children. There are only two ways to stop it: reverse the power dynamic (as happened in Finland when Russia conquered it from Sweden, I discovered in a term paper that semester) or isolate the children (as Kamal Sridhar observed in her Thanjavur Marathi community).

This was an important insight, with major implications for linguistics. None of us in the course were interested in segregating language groups from each other, and as linguists we were not positioned to shift the socioeconomic power differentials between groups. If the prescription for reversing language shift can be captured in a single sentence, that leaves no ongoing role for linguists.

Since then I have not been terribly surprised that Alan’s insight has not been enthusiastically embraced by other linguists. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Alan published two articles describing his definition of diglossia, but framed it in theoretical terms, downplaying the implications for efforts at language maintenance and revitalization.

Alan Hudson supervised my studies and my comprehensive exams, but retired before I was ready to begin my dissertation. He continued to provide valuable advice, and attended my dissertation defense. He will be remembered as an insightful linguist and a supportive teacher.

Othering, dehumanization and abuse

In a comment, Candy asked:

Can we also please talk about how “cis” is used as a term of abuse against feminists? As in, “shut up privileged cis bitches”? It’s the bit where trans activism begins to overlap with Men Rights Activism.

The use of “shut up” and “bitches” in Candy’s (unattested) example is definitely abuse, but in this dismissive context, “cis” is not functioning as abuse but othering. It positions the referent as an outsider who has no standing in the group, and possibly a threat. Othering can hurt, and it can often be done with malicious intent, but it is not the same as abuse, and responding to it as though it were abuse is generally not effective.

We can distinguish othering from abuse by removing the abusive terms and imagining a different context. Imagine that you have a group of army officers discussing how to attack a fort. Someone with no expertise is walking by and says, “Hey guys, you should just hit the tower with a bazooka!” The officers would be justified in saying, “Are you an army officer? What do you know?” or just “Get this civilian out of here!” “Civilian” isn’t a term of abuse here. It’s othering, but without malicious intent.

Othering is close to dehumanizing, which is a process where categories of people are reframed as enemies unworthy of common decency. This is a well-documented response to trauma, but it can also be done without trauma, when one group is framed as an existential threat to another. This framing can be done quite cynically, as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadži? did with Muslims and later with NATO troops. As I’ve discussed on my trans blog, much of the hatred against gay men, lesbians, trans people, and women who don’t obey men is often in response to a framing that portrays them as unwilling to cooperate in increasing the birth rate of the group. I’m sure any of you can think of several more examples.

Othering is connected with abuse because dehumanizing is an invitation to abuse. If someone is really The Enemy, and unworthy of common decency, then any attacks on them are allowed. Restrictions demarcating acceptable conduct like forum rules and rules against torture are seen as an inconvenience at best, and at worst a dangerous vulnerability at times when “we” can least afford it.

Othering and dehumanizing are forms of category profiling: substituting a category of people for the feature that is required. The army officers have training and experience attacking forts, and in theory they’ve been promoted because they’ve demonstrated some skill. There’s no evidence that this civilian has training, experience or skill. Similarly, German soldiers on the Western Front in World War I were under genuine mortal threat from French and British soldiers who had been ordered to kill them, but there was no evidence that, say, Mexican soldiers were a threat to them at that time.

Of course, category profiling can go wrong in decision-making. There are many examples of experts failing spectacularly, and of outsiders succeeding where the experts don’t. There’s a whole genre of stories about these, like the film Working Girl, where our heroine’s financial expertise is dismissed because she’s categorized as a secretary. When she changes her clothes and hairstyle, people classify her as a financial executive, take her recommendations seriously, and make money.

Profiling has a notorious record in connection with dehumanization. The way that the US treated Russians and Communists when I was a kid, and Arabs and Muslims now, is far out of proportion to any threat. Profiling almost invariably misses some threats, and innocent people are always caught up in the mess.

Now let’s bring in the principle of “nothing for us without us,” which is a foundation of both representative government and identity politics. The idea is that people are experts in the issues that affect them, and the best people to discuss issues affecting a category of people are members of that category. It is very common in activist movements to insist on centering members of a particular category and excluding non-members – either from participating at all, or from taking part in the discussion. This is why othering statements like Candy’s constructed example are common in activist contexts.

When the “nothing for us without us” interacts with dehumanization, it leads to fear that They are pretending to be Us, derailing our discussions within the group and misrepresenting our goals to the wider public. This is not some paranoid fantasy: there is a long history of people infiltrating enemy movements with the goal of spying and disrupting. Recent examples from the FBI include the COINTELPRO infiltration of anti-racist groups in the 1960s and 1970s, and ongoing infiltration of Islamic groups. Our interactions increasingly take place online, where it can be even more difficult to judge people’s affiliations and motives.

Of course, the idea of representation immediately bumps square up against the profiling problem. The fact that someone is affected by an issue is no guarantee that they understand that issue, or have any ability to communicate it or resolve it. It is also no guarantee that they are sane or ethical. It can also be difficult to pin down the specific category affected and center just the members of that category. For example, low-income female-presenting nonwhite transgender people working in sex industries are targets of violence and discrimination, but even if trans people are given voice to talk about it they are often white, relatively affluent, not sex workers and even male-presenting. And because categories can be messy, it is sometimes possible for people to be simultaneously (or intermittently) part of one category that needs representation and another category that some in the first see as a threat.

Several people, including myself and Third Way Trans, have observed that it is common for trans people to have a history of trauma. This leads many trans people to take an us-and-them view of the world, where all trans people are good and innocent, and all “cis” people are evil abusers – despite the fact that trans people are just as likely to be abusive as anyone else. Their trauma leads to othering and dehumanization, and that invites abuse.

So that’s the answer to Candy’s question: “cis” in this context is not used as a term of abuse. It is used for othering, and in combination with the dehumanization that many trans people practice, that justifies the abuse. I don’t see any direct connection to “Men’s Rights Activism.” Thanks for your question, Candy; I hope this helps!

Shelter from the tweetstorm

It’s happened to me too: I’m angry, or upset, or excited about something. I go on Twitter. I’ve got stuff to say. It’s more than will fit in the 140-character limit, but I don’t have the time or energy to write a blog post. So I just write a tweet. And then another, and another.

I’ve seen other people doing this, and I’m fine with it. But for a while now I’ve seen people doing something more planned, numbering their tweets. Many people try to predict how many tweets are going to be in a particular rant, and often fail spectacularly along the lines of Monty Python’ Spanish Inquisition sketch. Some people are clearly composing the whole thing ahead of time, as a unit. Sometimes they’re not even excited, just telling a story. It’s developing into a genre: the tweetstorm.

I get why people are reluctant to blog in these cases. If you’re already in Twitter and you want to write something longer, you have to switch to a different window, maybe log in, come up with a picture to grab people’s attention. Assuming you already have an account on a blogging platform. It doesn’t help that Twitter sees some of these as competitors and drags its feet on integrating them. And yes, mobile blogging apps still leave a lot to be desired, especially if you’ve got an intermittent connection like on the train.

People also tend to be drawn in easier one tweet at a time, like Beorn meeting the dwarves in the Hobbit. Maybe they don’t feel in the mood for reading something longer, or opening a web browser.

There may also be an aspect of live performance for the tweetstormer and the people who happen to be on Twitter while the storm is passing over, and the thread functions as an inferior archive of the performance, like concert videos. I can understand that too, but it’s a pain for the rest of us.

The problem is that Twitter sucks as a platform for reading longform pieces, or even medium-form ones. Yes, I know they’ve introduced “threading” features to make it easier to follow conversations. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to follow a single person’s multi-tweet rant. Combine that with other people replying in the middle of the “storm” and the original tweeter taking time in the middle to respond to them, and people using the quote feature and replying to quotes and quoting replies, and it gets really chaotic. If I bother to take the time, usually at the end it turns out it’s not worth it.

In terms of Bad Things on Twitter this is nowhere near the level of harassment and death threats, or even people livetweeting Netflix videos. But please, just go write a blog post and post a link. I promise I’ll read it.

What’s worse is that people are encouraging each other to do it. It’s one thing to get outraged on Twitter, or even to see someone else get outraged on Twitter and tell your followers to go check it out. It’s another when you know the whole thing is planned and you tell everyone to Read This. Now.

I get that you think it’s interesting, but that’s not enough for me. Tell me why, and let me decide if it’s worth my time to go reading through all those tweets in reverse chronological order. Better yet, storify that shit and tweet me the URL.

You know what would be even better? Tell that other tweeter, “What an awesome thread! It would make an even better blog post. Do you have a blog?”

On being a public linguist

People say you should stand up for what you believe in. They say you should look out for those less fortunate, and speak up for those who don’t get heard. They say that those of us who come from marginalized backgrounds, like TBLG backgrounds for example, but have enough privilege to be out in relative safety should speak up for those who don’t have that privilege. They say that those of us who have undertaken in-depth study in the interest of society have a particular responsibility to share what we know with the world as “public intellectuals.” They say that we linguists need to do a better job of applying our knowledge to real-world problems and communicating solutions to the public at large.

They’re right of course, but there’s a reason more people don’t do these things. They’re hard to do, and even harder to do right. Lots of people are strongly invested in the status quo and in thinking of themselves as good people, and they don’t like to be told that what they’re doing at best ineffective and at worst harmful. Lots of people think that because they’re trans they know everything there is to know about trans issues, or that because they use language they know everything there is to know about language.

Case in point: after watching with increasing frustration for years as the word “cisgender” was invented and abused, back in December I wrote a series of blog posts about it. I know this is a controversial topic, and I was a bit apprehensive since I was on the job market, but my posts was not idle rants: as a linguist, a trans person, and someone who has observed trans politics for years, I had been trained to do this kind of analysis, and pursued these topics beyond my training.

I anticipated a number of potential objections to my argument and addressed them in the first three posts. As I published each one I was worried it would get a huge backlash, but there was barely a peep (more on that in another post). So for the title of the last one I went big: “The word “cisgender” is anti-trans.” Not much reaction.

A few weeks ago I came across a Facebook post by a gender therapist asking for opinions about “cisgender,” so I left a link to my blog post, identifying it as “my professional opinion as a linguist.” The therapist then shared my post without identifying me as either trans or a linguist.

Then there was a backlash. Several people immediately called my post “garbage” and “horse shit.” There were a handful of substantive disagreements, all of which I had anticipated in my post and previous ones that I had linked to. There was some support, but the vast majority of comments were negative. There were several similar comments made on my blog post itself, most of which I left unpublished since they were repetitive and unhelpful.

I know that plenty of people face far worse reactions to things they post. I didn’t receive any comments on my looks, rape threats or death threats. But it was still very upsetting, particularly as it was posted the same day I began my first full-time job since receiving my Ph.D. – an event that was positive on a number of levels, but upsetting on other levels.

The gender therapist, who presumably helps people with their mental states, showed no interest whatsoever in mine. They made no effort to moderate, did not intervene in the comments, and sent me no personal messages. The idea that a trans person might be losing sleep over these attacks on their page may not have even occurred to them.

The response my post has gotten from other public linguists has been minimal. A columnist who’s written about the issue and encouraged me to write gave my post a few tweets. A radical feminist whose writings about language and politics inspired me for years completely ignored it. It has not been picked up by any of the popular linguistics blogs, or by anyone talking about language, gender and sexuality.

It’s quite possible that these linguists disagree with me. There are some very specific linguistic questions at stake. But linguists love to argue, and I would welcome respectful, constructive engagement with these questions. So far there has been none.

I have also gotten very little support from other linguists. When I was first formulating these arguments a few years ago on Twitter, there were at least two linguists who explicitly denied that I had any standing to contest the arguments for “cis” that they were retweeting. They were satisfied with the flimsiest of pseudolinguistic rationales in pursuit of their political and social goals, and for whatever reasons I did not qualify as an authentic voice of the trans community in their eyes. I stopped following them on Twitter, and as far as I could tell they had no reaction whatsoever to my posts.

I know that a lot of people don’t want to get involved in flamewars on Twitter or Facebook. It’s really hard to know who’s right and who’s wrong. At first glance I look like just another white guy, and I project an image of success and confidence on social media because that’s what everyone tells me I need to do. Some people may disagree with my stance on a political basis.

I mostly came out of the Facebook flareup okay, although it’s hard to tell how much of my insomnia and touchiness relates to that as opposed to other stresses. Re-reading some of those comments just now was pretty upsetting. I made a decision to focus on the new job, and avoided reading comments, posts or links for a week or two. Now it’s blown over – but there’s no telling when it’ll get shared by someone else.

My main point is that being a public linguist isn’t easy. Speaking out isn’t easy. Fighting on your own behalf instead of some Little People somewhere isn’t easy – even if you’ve got a certain amount of privilege. If you’re wondering why people don’t fight for themselves more often, why they don’t speak up, why linguists don’t write more public posts about issues that matter – there’s your answer. It’s much easier to bury your nose in a book and write about grammaticization vs. reanalysis in Old Church Slavonic.

If we really want people to take a stand on these things, we need to support them. We need to stick up for linguists who speak out in public. We need principles that go beyond identity and political and social affiliation. And we need people who are willing to support linguists who speak out based on those principles. We need people who will make themselves available to back up other linguists on the Internet. Without real support, it’s all empty rhetoric.

On pet parents

I’m a parent. It doesn’t make me better or worse than anyone else, it’s just a category that reflects some facts about me: I conceived a new human with my wife, we are raising and caring for that human, and we expect to have a relationship with him for the rest of our lives. Some people don’t take parenthood seriously, so it doesn’t impact their lives very much, but their kids suffer. We take it very seriously, and it’s a lot of work for us.

I also take care of pets. We own three cats, and sometimes I walk my mom’s dog or take him to be groomed. It can be a lot of work, and the relationships can be very intimate at times. “Ownership” is kind of a funny word for it. In some ways it can be like certain stages of parenting: we buy all the food and make sure the animals don’t get into danger. It makes sense when I hear people refer to their pets as their “baby” or put words in their pets calling themselves “daddy.” I even understand when I hear them refer to themselves as “pet moms.”

I understand this usage, but I do not agree with it. I have a kid, and I have pets. The relationships are similar, but different. When someone calls themself a “pet dad,” it trivializes my relationship with my kid and infantilizes my pets. It erases the work of the actual parents, and trivializes the hard work of humans who act as surrogate parents to infant pets. I am a dad: I am not a pet dad, and I am not my pets’ dad. Or their mom.

My kid will one day be an adult, and while I may always think of him as The Kid, he will be able to function as an autonomous member of society. (Note that the term “kid” itself is an animal metaphor – referring to a juvenile goat.) Only one of my cats can still be considered a juvenile by any standard; the others are five years old and twenty years old, respectively. They are adult males, and until the last century they would have been free to come and go as they wished.

If my cats are incapable of leaving our house unaccompanied it is more likely due to the fact that we have cars everywhere than anything else. When I was a kid we lost three dogs to car culture. When I was eleven I saw a neighbor’s cat crushed beneath the wheels of a car, and arrived just in time to see him take his last breath. We have indoor cats and dog leashes in part because we have made the outdoors inhospitable.

I suspect one reason we hear more about “pet parents” is that so few of our pets are parents themselves. I support universal neutering, and have only adopted neutered cats from shelters or feral rescuers. It’s the best response to the overpopulation of feral animals, but it does make the pets neuter – and childless.

When I was a kid we had a cat who had a litter of kittens. I watched one of our dogs give birth to eleven puppies, and then found homes for the ten that lived. Our male cats were aggressive, sexual toms. Again, not wise in retrospect, but it was hard to think of any of the humans in the house as “moms” or “dads” of our pets while they were themselves moms and dads.

There is one human I know who would qualify as a “cat mom” in my mind. She is the woman who leads the feral cat helpers in our neighborhood. Six years ago someone found a baby kitten near some railroad tracks in Manhattan. My neighbor fostered this kitten in her apartment for five months, feeding him with an eyedropper until he was old enough to eat. She posted his picture on her website and we adopted him. If he has a “pet mom” it’s her.

Prejudice and intelligibility

Last month I wrote about the fact that intelligibility – the ability of native speakers of one language or dialect to understand a closely related one – is not constant or automatic. A major factor in intelligibility is familiarity: when I was a kid, for example, I had a hard time understanding the Beatles until I got used to them. Having lived in North Carolina, I find it much easier to understand people from Ocracoke Island than my students do.

Prejudice can play a big role in intelligibility, as Donald Rubin showed in 1992. (I first heard about this study from Rosina Lippi-Green’s book English With an Accent.) At the time, American universities had recently increased the overall number of instructors from East Asia they employed, and some students complained that they had difficulty understanding the accents of their instructors.

In an ingenious experiment, Rubin demonstrated that much of this difficulty was due to prejudice. He recorded four-minute samples of “a native speaker of English raised in Central Ohio” reading a script for introductory-level lectures on two different subjects and played those samples to three groups of students.

For one group, a still photo of a “Caucasian” woman representing the instructor was projected on a screen while the audio sample was played. For the second group, a photo of “an Asian (Chinese)” woman was projected, with the same audio of the woman from central Ohio (presumably not of Asian ancestry) was played. The third group heard only the audio and was not shown a photo.

In a survey they took after hearing the clip, most of the students who saw the picture of an Asian woman reported that the speaker had “Oriental/Asian ethnicity.” That’s not surprising, because it’s essentially what they were told by being shown the photograph. But many of these students went further and reported that the person in the recording “speaks with a foreign accent.” In contrast, the vast majority of the students who were shown the “Caucasian” picture said that they heard “an American accent.”

The kicker is that immediately after they heard the recording (and before answering the survey), Rubin tested the students on their comprehension of the content of the excerpt, by giving them a transcript with every seventh word replaced by a blank. The students who saw a picture of an Asian woman not only thought they heard a “foreign accent,” but they did worse on the comprehension task! Rubin concluded that “listening comprehension seemed to be undermined simply by identifying (visually) the instructor as Asian.”

Rubin’s subjects may not have felt any particular hostility towards people from East Asia, but they had a preconceived notion that the instructor would have an accent, and they assumed that they would have difficulty understanding her, so they didn’t bother trying.

This study (and a previous one by Rubin with Kim Smith) connect back to what I was saying about familiarity, and I will discuss that and power imbalances in a future post, but this finding is striking enough to merit its own post.

Ten reasons why sign-to-speech is not going to be practical any time soon.

It’s that time again! A bunch of really eager computer scientists have a prototype that will translate sign language to speech! They’ve got a really cool video that you just gotta see! They win an award! (from a panel that includes no signers or linguists). Technology news sites go wild! (without interviewing any linguists, and sometimes without even interviewing any deaf people).

…and we computational sign linguists, who have been through this over and over, every year or two, just *facepalm*.

The latest strain of viral computational sign linguistics hype comes from the University of Washington, where two hearing undergrads have put together a system that … supposedly recognizes isolated hand gestures in citation form. But you can see the potential! *facepalm*.

Twelve years ago, after already having a few of these *facepalm* moments, I wrote up a summary of the challenges facing any computational sign linguistics project and published it as part of a paper on my sign language synthesis prototype. But since most people don’t have a subscription to the journal it appeared in, I’ve put together a quick summary of Ten Reasons why sign-to-speech is not going to be practical any time soon.

  1. Sign languages are languages. They’re different from spoken languages. Yes, that means that if you think of a place where there’s a sign language and a spoken language, they’re going to be different. More different than English and Chinese.
  2. We can’t do this for spoken languages. You know that app where you can speak English into it and out comes fluent Pashto? No? That’s because it doesn’t exist. The Army has wanted an app like that for decades, and they’ve been funding it up the wazoo, and it’s still not here. Sign languages are at least ten times harder.
  3. It’s complicated. Computers aren’t great with natural language at all, but they’re better with written language than spoken language. For that reason, people have broken the speech-to-speech translation task down into three steps: speech-to-text, machine translation, and text-to-speech.
  4. Speech to text is hard. When you call a company and get a message saying “press or say the number after the tone,” do you press or say? I bet you don’t even call if you can get to their website, because speech to text suuucks:

    -Say “yes” or “no” after the tone.
    -I think you said, “Go!” Is that correct?
    -My mistake. Please try again.
    -I think you said, “I love cheese.” Is that correct?

  5. There is no text. A lot of people think that text for a sign language is the same as the spoken language, but if you think about point 1 you’ll realize that that can’t possibly be true. Well, why don’t people write sign languages? I believe it can be done, and lots of people have tried, but for some reason it never seems to catch on. It might just be the classifier predicates.
  6. Sign recognition is hard. There’s a lot that linguists don’t know about sign languages already. Computers can’t even get reliable signs from people wearing gloves, never mind video feeds. This may be better than gloves, but it doesn’t do anything with facial or body gestures.
  7. Machine translation is hard going from one written (i.e. written version of a spoken) language to another. Different words, different meanings, different word order. You can’t just look up words in a dictionary and string them together. Google Translate is only moderately decent because it’s throwing massive statistical computing power at the input – and that only works for languages with a huge corpus of text available.
  8. Sign to spoken translation is really hard. Remember how in #5 I mentioned that there is no text for sign languages? No text, no huge corpus, no machine translation. I tried making a rule-based translation system, and as soon as I realized how humongous the task of translating classifier predicates was, I backed off. Matt Huenerfauth has been trying (PDF), but he knows how big a job it is.
  9. Sign synthesis is hard. Okay, that’s probably the easiest problem of them all. I built a prototype sign synthesis system in 1997, I’ve improved it, and other people have built even better ones since.
  10. What is this for, anyway? Oh yeah, why are we doing this? So that Deaf people can carry a device with a camera around, and every time they want to talk to a hearing person they have to mount it on something, stand in a well-lighted area and sign into it? Or maybe someday have special clothing that can recognize their hand gestures, but nothing for their facial gestures? I’m sure that’s so much better than decent funding for interpreters, or teaching more people to sign, or hiring more fluent signers in key positions where Deaf people need the best customer service.

So I’m asking all you computer scientists out there who don’t know anything about sign languages, especially anyone who might be in a position to fund something like this or give out one of these gee-whiz awards: Just stop. Take a minute. Step back from the tech-bling. Unplug your messiah complex. Realize that you might not be the best person to decide whether or not this is a good idea. Ask a linguist. And please, ask a Deaf person!

Note: I originally wrote this post in November 2013, in response to an article about a prototype using Microsoft Kinect. I never posted it. Now I’ve seen at least three more, and I feel like I have to post this. I didn’t have to change much.

The Mayor’s speech

The spectacle of two bilingual Presidential candidates arguing in Spanish last week reminded me of the Twitter feed, “Miguel Bloombito,” created by Rachel Figueroa-Levin to mock our former Mayor’s Spanish for the amusement of her friends. I may be coming late to the party here, but Bloombito is still tweeting, and was recently mentioned by one of my fellow linguists. If Bloomberg runs for President we can probably expect to hear more from El Bloombito, so it’s not too late to say how dismayed I was by this parody as a linguist, as a language teacher, as a non-native Spanish speaker and as a New Yorker.

If Bloombito were simply a fun, jokey phenomenon, punching up at a privileged white billionaire who needs no defending, I wouldn’t spend time on it. But the context is not as simple as that. Figueroa-Levin’s judgment is linguistically naive, and rests on a confusion of pronunciation with overall competence, and an implied critique of language learning that sets the bar so high that most of the world’s population can never meet it.

Figueroa-Levin says that, “I think he’s just reading something on a card,” and maybe he does that with Spanish in the same contexts as with English, but that is not all there is to his Spanish. As reporter Juan Manuel Benítez told the New York Times, “the mayor’s Spanish is a lot better than a lot of people really think it is.”

Unsurprisingly, then, the tweets of El Bloombito do not actually resemble the Mayor’s Spanish very much at all. Instead they are a caricature of bad Spanish, with bad morphology and syntax, and lots of English mixed in. Linguists actually agree that mixing two languages is generally a sign of competence in both languages, and New York Spanish has several English borrowings that are absolutely standard. In contrast, the fictional Bloombito mixes them in ways that no real speaker does, like adding Spanish gender markers to every English noun.

For years now, as the population of native Spanish speakers has grown, politicians have made an effort to speak the language in public. With President George W. Bush and Governor George Pataki, Spanish seemed mostly symbolic. But Bloomberg seems to have taken more seriously the fact that twenty percent of the city’s population speaks Spanish at home.

The most noticeable feature of the actual Michael Bloomberg’s Spanish is a very strong American accent. He has no real success in pronouncing sounds that are specific to Spanish, like the flapped /r/ or the pure /o/, substituting sounds from his Boston/New York English. But in addition, when he says a Spanish word that has an English cognate his pronunciation tends to sound closer to the English word, giving the impression that he is using more English words than he really is.

There are ways of rendering these mispronunciations into Spanish, but Figueroa-Levin does not use them in her parody, probably because her audience doesn’t know Spanish well enough to get the joke. She also confuses accent for overall competence in the language. But if you listen beyond his accent, Bloomberg displays a reasonable degree of competence in Spanish. He often reads from prepared remarks, as with English, but he is able to speak extemporaneously in Spanish. In particular, he is able to understand fairly complex questions and give thoughtful responses to them on the spot, as in this discussion of the confirmation of Justice Sotomayor:

The bottom line is that, as Bloomberg said in the first clip, “Es difícil para aprender un nuevo idioma.” My experience teaching ESL and French has confirmed that. No adult, especially not a man in his sixties, is going to achieve nativelike fluency. But we can achieve the kind of mastery that Bloomberg has. And this city runs on the work of millions of people who speak English less well than Bloomberg speaks Spanish, but still manage to get things done.

In fact, before Bloombito I used clips of Mayor Bloomberg to reassure my ESL students that they could still function in a foreign language and be respected, even with a thick accent. After Bloombito I can no longer give them that assurance.

In the Salon interview Figueroa-Levin makes the argument that this kind of language work is best left to professionals, as Bloomberg did with American Sign Language, for example, and that Bloomberg was doing his Spanish-speaking constituents a disservice by speaking it imperfectly. I have made similar arguments regarding interpreters and translators. But speaking to the media and constituents in a foreign language is nowhere near as difficult as interpreting, and does not need to be professionalized. I’m sure the Mayor always had fluent Spanish speaking staffers nearby to fall back on as well.

What I find particularly disturbing about Miguel Bloombito is the symbolism. For centuries in this country speakers of other languages, particularly Spanish, have been expected to speak English in addition to whatever else they are trying to do (work, advocacy, civic participation). English has been associated with power, Spanish with subjugation.

Figueroa-Levin told Salon, “You get this sense that he thinks we should be honored that he would even attempt to speak Spanish.” What she gets wrong is that this is not just an empty gesture, like memorizing a few words. Here we have a native English speaker, one of the most powerful people in the country, who puts in significant time and effort every day to learn Spanish, and people mock him for it. It’s like if someone saw the Pope washing the feet of homeless people, criticized him on his technique, and told him to let a licensed pedicurist do the job. I could say more, but I’ve run out of polite things to say, so I’ll leave the last word to Carlos Culerio, the man on the street interviewed in the first clip above:

“I feel especially proud, as a Dominican, that Mayor Bloomberg speaks Spanish. It’s a matter of pride for us as Hispanics.”