Sign of the times: The app helping parents and children learn sign language

Rebecca Whelan and her sister Gemma with the app on her phone that helps deaf children to read Picture: Eddie O'Hare.

A new app is teaching children and their parents sign language, through the power of reading, writes Ciara McDonnell.

It’s Friday evening, and the Whelan family are gearing up for a busy weekend of sport and family activities. Rebecca, aged 7, and her sister Gemma, 12, are full of energy, alternating between giving me a personal lesson in mastering The Floss (spoiler alert – I fail), and introducing me to StorySign, a new app from Huawei in partnership with the Irish Deaf Society, that Rebecca has been road testing since December.

Rebecca and Gemma were born profoundly deaf, and both girls have bilateral cochlear implants, which enables them to hear and communicate like any hearing girls their age.

While the spoken word is their primary source of communication, the family have incorporated Irish Sign Language as their second language, used in times like when the implants are charging, during bath time or in the swimming pool changing room. Like all bilingual families, learning two languages takes work, and that’s where StorySign comes in.

Giuseppe and Nuala Whelan with their daughters Rebecca and Gemma at home near Kinsale Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Giuseppe and Nuala Whelan with their daughters Rebecca and Gemma at home near Kinsale Picture: Eddie O'Hare

The free app reads selected children’s books and translates them into sign language with the help of an animated avatar called Star.

It’s aimed at children who are learning to read, and was developed in conjunction with animation specialists Aardman — the company behind Wallace & Gromit — and in partnership with local charities affiliated with the European Union of the Deaf and publishing partner Penguin.

Some 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, most of whom don’t know how to sign. Just like English spoken in Ireland will have different nuance and syntax to English spoken in England, so too does Sign Language.

Irish Sign Language is the official indigenous language of the Deaf community here, boasting its own complex linguistic structure, rules and features. It is the preferred language of 5,000 deaf people in Ireland and approximately 40,000 people communicate in ISL every day.

The StorySign App is a fantastic aid to regular sign language classes, says the girl’s father, Giuseppe Whelan.

We’ve been learning Irish Sign Language for a while, but I still forget some words when we are signing to each other.

"Books are the key to maintaining and expanding your vocabulary, and this app bridges the gap. It helps to learn the sign as well as the word at the same time.”

For Rebecca, StorySign offers a way of expanding her reading ability while improving her sign language. “I love the app,” she says. “It’s funny and it’s easy to use.”

With an interface that is easy to navigate and Star, the app’s Avatar who cheerily guides children and parents through a selected children’s book, translating it into perfect sign language and signing along to the story in real time, StorySign makes sign language — and reading — fun.

Research carried out by Huawei shows that lots of deaf children grow up struggling to read, as they can’t hear their parents reading stories to them and they can’t hear their teachers repeating sentences from textbooks, which are both a fundamental part of learning how to read. Despite these challenges, the tech giant’s research also shows that in Ireland, parents of deaf children spend more time reading to their children each day than parents of hearing children.

Watching Rebecca navigating her way through the app, scanning the pages of Where Is Spot by Eric Hill and copying Star as she signs the sentences back at her, the challenges in translation from written word to sign are clear. Where one written sentence may take up seven words on a page, it may only require two signs to translate it. “That’s the thing about sign,” explains Giuseppe. “It leaves the little words out of the sentence.”

Sign Language is unique to every area in which it is spoken. In Ireland, we have gender sign language, meaning that men and women know different signs for the same word, because they traditionally would have been educated in separate schools.

This is where StorySign is really clever; each country has an avatar schooled in the sign dialect of that area. Star will sign ‘dog’ in Irish Sign Language, but may make a whole other sign for ‘dog’ in French Sign Language.

For a bright, interested seven-year-old like Rebecca Whelan, StorySign gives her the autonomy to read a book and its corresponding signs as she pleases. She takes sign language classes twice a week, and in between classes will top up with sessions on StorySign. It’s fun, she says, and like any seven-year-old, the opportunity to ‘borrow’ her parents’s phone for a little while is a bonus.

Huawei are at the beginning stages of StorySign, but they’re committed to exploring the potential that the app has to become a wider educational tool, ultimately enabling families with hearing and non-hearing children to master sign language as an additional communication tool.

While the app currently offers one book in its arsenal, Huawei have pledged €440K to its partnership with the European Union of the Deaf. As part of its continued commitment, the company will also fund an additional four new books to add to the StorySign library in 2019.

StorySign is a wonderful addition to your toolkit if you have a deaf child, says Giuseppe Whelan. For the Whelan family, it acts a fantastic aid alongside help offered by groups like Cork Deaf Association, which acted as a lifeline for the family when the girls were newly diagnosed.

“We understand that not everyone wants to reach out to groups in the early days,” he says, “but The Cork Deaf Association has offered us community and support for the entirety of the girl’s lives. Technological advances like StorySign are a truly brilliant addition to the services that are already available and we’d recommend it to any family with children who are at a reading age. If you have a newly diagnosed child and are learning sign language for the first time, it will really help to augment regular sign language lessons.”

StorySign can be downloaded for free from the Google Play Store and the Huawei App Gallery in ten markets across Western Europe. For more information on how to get involved, please visit https://consumer.huawei.com/ie/campaign/storysign/.

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