Liam O’Dell: Is technology harming sign language?

Posted on September 21, 2017

Learning a language is no mean feat, and in today’s society, we’ve discovered new ways of getting another dialect stuck in our heads. Gone are the days of textbooks and physical dictionaries, instead, these have now shifted onto mobile apps such as Duolingo. Language learning has become increasingly technological.

It’s understandable given how we process information nowadays – it makes things convenient. Yet, we must ask: for whom?

After all, when on holiday abroad, a tourist using a translator app to communicate with someone from that country will benefit just as much as the native speaker. The breakdown of the foreign language barrier is mutually beneficial.

But is this same for British Sign Language (BSL) – a visual language which belongs to a close-knit community, as opposed to a country?

It’s a question worth asking given a new piece of technology which has been created recently in the US. The University of California has created a glove which they say can translate the American Sign Language (ASL) alphabet into text. In an article by New Scientist, Action on Hearing Loss’ Jesal Vishnuram said ‘technology like this will completely change [deaf people’s] lives].”

However, I’m not convinced. I don’t need to talk about how unique a language BSL is, and how a visual language needs to be translated into text or spoken English in order for the hearing world to understand (and vice versa for deaf people). My scepticism lies with the fact that these gloves give off the sense that sign language is one big inconvenience.

Rather than endeavouring to learn BSL, hearing people have resorted to technology. Sure, expensive sign language courses aren’t an option for most people, and deaf clubs to practice with are few and far between. Nevertheless, there’s something unfair about deaf people having to be translated for the benefit of hearing people. Granted, we do indeed live in a hearing world, but is there not an underlying sense of hierarchy or ‘us and them’ underneath all of this?

I say this as someone who has, for the past three years, been building up their knowledge of British Sign Language from absolutely nothing to having a basic conversation in the language.

I still have a long way to go, but throughout that time I’ve hardly ever relied on technology to help me (save for the odd YouTube video or an online video dictionary). Instead, a strong group of friends, my local deaf charity and clubs at school all contributed towards my understanding.

Whilst there’s plenty more options for people to practice a spoken, foreign language, there were times where I felt stuck, with friends who use BSL living as far as Scotland and social clubs finished for a month. For the deaf community, learning British Sign Language has always worked best by doing it in person.

It’s also worth mentioning that interpreters are different to these translator gloves. At least with the former, there’s a sense of balance between the two ‘sides’ (hearing people and deaf people).

In the case of the glove, one wonders what happens when the sign language is converted into text. How does the hearing person (or persons) communicate back to the deaf person? Via the text app on the phone? Whatever way it is, surely it comes across as being a little bit offensive for all the communication to be hosted on technological advices? It’s like having two people sitting opposite each other in a café, but only talking to each other via a messaging app on their phone rather than in person. It just feels… lazy.

Whether you think technology as a whole is destroying or improving our society, either view is valid, but in terms of the deaf community, are the advancements in language learning, apps and gadgets harming a beautiful visual code such as British Sign Language?

Read more of Liam’s writing for us here.

Liam O’Dell is mildly deaf and uses hearing aids in both ears. Alongside studying for a degree in journalism, Liam enjoys presenting his own radio show, listening to music and reading one of the many books on his ’to-be-read’ list. You can find out more about Liam over at his blog:, or follow him on Twitter: @lifeofathinker.

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