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.