Sign language and video calls

Published Nov 3, 2020

I read an article today that got me thinking about sign language again: Hand to mouth. Specifically, I’m thinking about it in the context of video calls being 2020’s primary venue for multi-modal communication. There are thousands (millions?) of articles detailing the differences between video calls and everything else, so I’ll skip my take on that in general.

The article explores how language may have moved from gesture-based communication toward verbal communication. I’ve been experiencing some of the reverse transition with video calls. Since all the audio is mixed together, I lose volume and direction as means of figuring out where to direct my focus. Audio quality makes that even worse. And (in my case) cross-continent latency means that it’s impossible to get the small sounds in: the “mhmm” for acknowledgement and “uh” for interjection, to give two examples.

Since I keep my video enabled in most meetings, I’ve noticed a natural switch to sending those signals by visual means: 👍 (thumbs-up) and ✋ (raised hand). There’s already plenty of reasons to learn a sign language (being able to properly communicate with a larger set of people, for one). But this adds a new one: quickly communicating more complex thoughts than what’s already represented by emojis. Time to break out the Anki flashcards again!