Why there is no “Google Gesture” sign-to-speech translator

Aside from the irresponsible journalism that propagated this story in the first place, the basis for the concept is fundamentally flawed. There cannot be such thing as a wristband a signer can wear that will translate their signed language into spoken language; why? Because signed language is not just on the hands! Signed language is on the face and the body as well. The grammar of signed language is made through eyebrow, mouth, cheek, and even nose movements. Signed language is made with head nods and shakes, head and body tilts, and even shoulder shrugs. Anyone who ever took an introductory course in ASL should know this.

There is one other important flaw in the concept of a gesture-to-speech translation machine, and that is the notion that there is one “sign language.” No, folks, “sign language” is not universal! No sir, no ma’am. Even if Google were able to take input from a human interface device located on a signer’s body–even if that included all the points on the face and body necessary to read signed language–Google would have to add hundreds of signed languages into their Google Translate engine. Language is culture-bound, just as gesture is culture-bound. I’d like to see how this supposed “Google Gesture” would translate the thumbs up gesture, which can mean something like “up yours” in countries other than the United States.

American Sign Language (note that the A in ASL stands for American; i.e., not universal) is a much richer and more complex language than people give it credit for; in fact, so are all the signed languages in the world. Until enough people learn to appreciate the sophistication, complexity, and diversity of signed languages, we will continue to swallow false stories like this hook, line, and sinker.

Unicode: What the world needs now is love

Last week, a Deaf friend of mine made a good point about Unicode adding a “raised middle finger” symbol to the new standard: “They still need an ASL ILY emoji.” Right she is! If you can flip someone the bird, you should be able to say “I love you” too. Perhaps submitting a character proposal to Unicode is in order.


Unicode 7.0 Miscellaneous Symbols and Pictographs (PDF)
Original Facebook post:

Three lessons this interpreter is learning from teaching ASL

1. It takes patience and creativity to sign with people who know little sign language.

I have a new respect for Deaf people who take the time to sign with ASL students. Having more respect for Deaf people and more creativity in how I express myself is making me a better Deaf community member.

2. I’ve been doing it wrong.

Well, maybe not wrong, but there are things I never knew, such as that Y is considered a down letter; that is, Y is made by tilting the palm downward. I’m sure this is not a hard and fast rule; in fact, I can see even on the Signing Naturally DVD the language models do not always sign Y that way. Still, I never knew it ever tilted down at all. Now I see it in the way I and other signers spell the lexicalized #style and #yes. I also never knew that the sign WHEN meant what day, not what time. Again, I’m sure this is not a hard and fast rule, but I never knew it was a rule at all. Those are just two examples of several. Learning how to refine my signing is making me a better interpreter.

3. Now I see what my students have learned.

Since many of the interpreting students and working interpreters I teach have learned ASL with the Signing Naturally curriculum, I have a better idea of what they were taught. Knowing what my students have learned is making me a better interpreter trainer.

I’m watching the Community Forum – Conversations Today Shaping Our Tomorrow

I’m not at RID 2013 in person, but I’m watching the Community Forum – Conversations Today Shaping Our Tomorrow live streaming at http://rid.org/content/index.cfm/AID/266. I’m live tweeting with others who are there and watching it streaming as well.

That was fun, participating online!