At the age of 14, by chance, Junto Ohki saw a television programme about sign language. He was mesmerized. “I thought it was beautiful and I wanted to learn it too,” he says, “but nobody in my family was deaf and used sign language and I didn’t know anyone else who used it either.” Ohki had no luck finding a school that taught it and almost gave up. But he persevered. At age 20, while at Keio University, he formed a sign language club. (Even though, he says, “I didn’t know sign language.”) Five years later he became a certified sign language interpreter in Japan.
According to the World Federation of the Deaf, approximately 70 million people worldwide use sign languages. They are divided by 126 different languages, each with its own grammar and vocabulary, just as the speakers of spoken languages are. However, unlike spoken languages, there are very few bilingual dictionaries to bridge gaps between sign languages.
In 2011, Ohki set about remedying this problem by creating SLinto, which he says is the world’s first sign language online database using a specially adapted keyboard. Its aim is to crowdsource signs from sign language users and build a database dictionary with the aim of breaking down the barriers between deaf communities and promoting social inclusiveness.
Today, with more than 3,200 signs, SLinto is Japan’s biggest database of signs. Users who know what a signed word looks like but do not know what it means can use the website keyboard to choose from finger and hand shapes, and then select the sign they want from candidate video clips.
“In real life, signs are 3D,” says Ohki, “but the keyboard makes them 2D, which means elements are missing and you have to select the actual sign you’re looking for from the videos.”
According to Ohki, SLinto’s crowdsourced nature allows for the creation of new signs, making it possible for sign languages to evolve richer vocabularies and also serve as a platform that provides deaf people with access to basic social services. SLinto also offers business synergies. “There are no signs for the most recent electronic products, or for all the different kinds of motor vehicles, for example, so a company could hold a competition using SLinto to get a sign language name for their business or for their products,” he says.
Ohki’s goal over the next two years is to reach 10,000 signs in Japan, 7,000 in the US and 3,000 in a developing country. “My first developing country choice is India because it’s such a big market and because we’ve already had expressions of interest from deaf schools there,” he says.
In the US, the Gallaudet University for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is helping him test the dictionary, and Ohki says the US version of SLinto, which is undergoing development to make it fully functional, has the support of one of the country’s most senior American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters.
“These numbers and these countries are just short-term goals,” says Ohki, who maintains that SLinto has the potential to be a groundbreaking resource that breaks down the barriers between sign languages worldwide.
In the meantime, Ohki is improving SLinto’s functionality to make it possible for sign language users to translate between American Sign Language and Japanese sign language and, in targeting multilingual India, between, say, the sign languages of Mumbai and New Delhi.
Published in 2016