Is Technology Killing Sign Language (And Does It Matter)?
With advanced hearing aids, wearable technology and even mind-reading devices, the number of native sign language users is declining. But this might not spell the end for signing.
More than one million people in Australia live with some form of hearing loss, yet National Disability Practitioners estimate that only around 20,000 people use Australian Sign Language (Auslan).
“Sign language use is dropping,” National Acoustic Laboratories Director Dr Brent Edwards told 10 daily.
“It was invented because IT didn’t exist, and the most important thing is communicating with other people, so the need for signing was there.”
Hearing technology is advancing rapidly, which is fortunate because so is hearing loss rates, with one in four Australians expected to experience this by 2050.
Just this week new software launched the allows hearing aid users to stream sound from an Android phone directly to their hearing device for the first time.
“There are several trends underway in a changing landscape of hearing help solutions, probably four key areas; teller health, artificial intelligence (AI), brain controlled hearing aids and technology hearables,” Dr Edwards said.
To the layman, brain controlled hearing aids is the most futuristic sounding of the four.
“There are sensors that pick up neural activity and can tell that you’re struggling with your hearing and it changes how it’s processing sound to help you.
“It really is reading the mind of the wearer in order to tell what sounds they want enhanced.”
However, all this technology is directed towards people who have some residual hearing as opposed to those who have total hearing loss.
People like Anabelle Beasley, Secretary of Deaf Youth Australia.
“I am profoundly deaf, I’m a native Auslan user and I don’t speak,” she told 10 daily.
While she finds her community embraces technology including FaceTime, Voice To Text and captioning, it doesn’t replace an entire language.
“Some individuals can speak fluently, while there are others who cannot speak at all, which leads us to rely on sign language for total communication.”
Interestingly, Auslan is rarely a person's first language because around 90 percent of children who are born deaf have hearing parents who don’t sign.
Alternatives to signing include hearing aids and implants, writing, speaking, technological communication devices and lip reading.
However, the Chief Executive of Deaf Australia, Kyle Miers, said Auslan is essential in his recent address to The National Press Club of Australia.
“Items and devices such as a hearing aid or cochlea implant doesn’t cure a child who is deaf but it can provide supports to that child for them to be able to enjoy community life, but it’s not an answer in a holistic sense.
“Society needs to make adjustments to meet the requirements of deaf children, not the other way around,” he said.
Mr Miers is determined to see Auslan recognised as a right for deaf people and share in government investments that currently focus on hearing supports over language.
He added learning sign language at an early age can improve educational outcomes in English skills, accelerate important development traits and help establish identity.
Ultimately, it’s about the hearing impaired person having choices, and that could be using a combination of sign language and technology.
According to Dr Edwards, a stronger connection between the two is coming.
“The barrier of sign language is that both people need to know it but AI and machine learning technology can help with that,” he said.
“Very soon it’s possible that a video camera will be able to convert sign language into text, and that text into speech.”
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Auditory technology may not be restricted to the hearing impaired, with the relatively new category of “hearables” coming into play.
“This is a merging of consumer electronics with hearing aids, soon you’re going to have a harder time telling if it’s a medical device or not.”
This wearable tech is often made by mainstream audio manufacturing giants and easily accessible from media shops.
“There’s already a hearing aid that is counting steps. It’s these cool features that will likely see people with hearing even start wearing technology like this as well,” Dr Edwards said.
Mr Miers approached hearing innovations with caution, however, adding businesses often have a vested interest.
“A lot of [technology investment] has been into hearing supports which has not a great deal with communication,” he said.
“It needs to be broadened out to also include communications skills, not just listening skills.”
So, does technology spell the end of sign language or a new beginning?
From those in the know, Ms Beasley simply said, “There cannot be enough technology to compensate for the loss of sign language.”