Video discussions in sign language

Two weeks ago, a group of deaf people in the UK started using sign video in a Google discussion group. They sign in front of a webcam, and upload the video to the group.

For many deaf people, sign language is their first language – their native tongue. “Pre-lingually deaf” people (deafness occurred before they developed linguistic skills and awareness) often have a hard time with written English because they lack something called auditory memory. If you can’t “sound” words in your mind because you’ve never heard them, writing and spelling becomes much harder.

Sign languages aren’t just a translation with signs of the words of a spoken language. They are naturally occuring, rich, living languages of their own. There are 114 sign languages listed at Ethnologue.com. Sign languages can have complex grammars – a fertile ground for linguistic research. For example, American Sign Language (ASL)is gramatically much closer to spoken Japanese than to spoken English.

Because there is no written version of a sign language, there are almost no email, discussion groups or websites. There have been some experiments, like Helga Stevens’ website that provides text AND sign language, Deafstation.org which provides sign tv, or Camfrog, which has been used for sign language video chats.

Still though, the bottom-up, conversation empowering nature of the web was mostly lost to the deaf communities. No weblogs. No discussion groups.

Until now. Rob Wilkins created the first video sign post on his blog, and Alison Bryan started to experiment with a video/sign language discussion group, just a few weeks ago, after joining the videoblogging discussion group.


Now, a large group of people can communicate over the internet in their native tongues. As a fortunate side effect, the evolution of sign language will, for the first time in history, be archived and can thus be more easily studied.

The lack of bandwidth limits on Google Groups, combined with affordable broadband and webcams made this technically possible, but the unique needs of this group of people made it actually happen.

0 thoughts on “Video discussions in sign language

  1. hello billy joe bader
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  2. Can you please comment on the following discussion or provide any advice about using web cams to facilitate sign language for teachers and students?

    There are problems when using web cams of any type where one or both parties uses a dial-up connection or even some of the slower broadband connections, which might often be the case when trying to communicate with students working from home. The images are jerky and blurry, making signing a problem.

    We had a fellow come in to demonstrate a special video phone that operated outside the internet environment, but that also did not have sufficient speed or resolution to facilitate sign language.

    High speed broadband at both ends is required to have good enough live-streaming for sign language to be of practical use. Even with high speed, for example from our NSW DET state office in Sydney to the IT office a few kilometers away, we don’t get good enough speed to enable a webcam to be used to pick up sign language. When a person moves, the image is very blurry unless the movements are very slow.

    Video conferencing can be used between NSW DET locations, and that is usually not too bad, although still a bit slow; but that is not be a practical solution for one-on-one interaction between a teacher and an individual student, who may be at home.

    On the technical side:

    The cameras themselves are quite cheap, so that cost is not an impediment.

    We have two options that are freely available at the moment for web cam communication.

    1. Bridgit (part of SmartTools): If both parties are at NSW DET locations, they can use web cams and headphones to share live streaming audio and video communication. I have tested it with a nearby offfice and don’t believe our network is fast enough to efficiently use sign language.

    2. Skype: If one or both parties are not at a NSW DET location, Skype is a free service that works with a web cam and headphone as well. Officially, we can’t download and install Skype on NSW DET PCs.

    The problem of students from home not having sufficient broadband speed for practical use, in terms of seeing what people are signing, may be an ongoing problem.

    Unfortunately, I think it is a case of the movies giving people a false impression of what is available — possible, yes, available, hmmmm . . .?

    If you know of anyone who successfully uses web cams to communicate via sign language, I would certainly like to know who they are so I can ask how they are doing it and how successful it is.

    Having a visual image of a person while communicating, no matter how poor the image quality, is probably useful in many ways; but at this stage, I am not sure we have services that would enable efficient sign language communication.

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