You Want Me to Sign What?
A Wikipedia for the deaf strives to improve sign translation
LIKE MANY young people in Singapore and elsewhere, 25-year-old Quek Kai Yu sometimes finds it difficult to communicate with his parents. But in his case, the generation gap isn’t always to blame. Both his parents are deaf and mute—and use two different sign languages. Says Quek. “The same gesture could mean something different in both languages,” says Quek, which is why he and his family are the ideal market for the Slinto dictionary, the world’s first online, crowdsourced database for signs. “If you want to show dog in American Sign Language, you type it into Google, and a video shows up,” says Slinto’s founder, Japanese entrepreneur Junto Okhi. But it’s much harder to do the reverse, that is, to describe the hand gestures and figure out what they mean. The Slinto breakthrough: “If you know the sign language but not the meaning, you can use our dictionary to search for it,” says Okhi.
To obtain a sign-to-spoken-word translation, users search Slinto’s database—which currently comprises roughly 3,200 words from Japanese sign language—via its special online keyboard which is made up of pictorial representations of hands or body parts. Users choose from those keys to indicate which fingers create the unknown sign and where they’re placed against the body (for example, the chest or beside the ear). The search results throw up some corresponding words for a sign. By watching the short video clip that accompanies each word, users can compare the orientation, hand shape and movement of the hands with the sign they’re trying to translate, and hence determine its meaning.
It may not work 100 percent of the time. “It cannot be assumed that there is always signword correspondence in meaning,” says Robert Adam, who leads a group on sign language and deaf studies at the World Federation of the Deaf.
Slinto relies on users to contribute words and videos, as well as to vote on the accuracy of translations. Later this year, Slinto’s database will expand to include American Sign Language, and Okhi hopes it will eventually encompass as many as possible of the world’s 126 sign languages, used by roughly 70 million people worldwide.