In Issue 1/2022

A vision of progress

Hard-of-hearing communities rely on all the text they can get throughout society. As I live in little fairy tale Denmark, which is known for high-level education and technology, as well as a high-level social system, it was eye-opening to see how speech-to-text services can work when I got involved with the European Federation of Hard of Hearing in 2015 by volunteering to do political work on disability.

What I knew about speech-to-text services until then did not help me much, for various reasons. They were slow, with a big gap in speed between the orally spoken language and the transcript. The text appeared letter by letter. If there were typographical errors, whole lines would be deleted and retyped. No abbreviations were used in the typing process – all words were fully typed.

At the same time, because the process was slow, some information was not written at all. During breaks at conferences, I often realised that I had missed out on some important points because no interpretation was available about it. When we met online during lockdown with Danish speech-to-text interpreters, we could work only via sharing a screen, and we were unable to see slideshows or other documents during meetings.

Via jobs given by the European Federation of Hard of Hearing, I met new speech-to-text interpreters and saw a much better-quality interpretation process that is much faster and closer to the speed of naturally spoken language. The device used shows whole words and whole sentences to the client. Speech-to-text interpreters use abbreviations in their typing, which makes the process faster, but the client is still shown unabridged words and sentences.

Using modern speech-to-text technology, typographical errors are corrected instantly, or the correct sentence is written without deleting the errors. Hard-of-hearing clients are presented with much more information about the speech event. When discussing presentations during breaks in conferences, I too felt that I had received the relevant information and could participate in the discussion. When meeting online during lockdown, speech-to-text interpreters could do their work via subtitles or a small window on the screen, so we could also enjoy the visual materials during the presentations.

These experiences showed me how much progress could still be made in Danish speech-to-text services.

Implementing new speech-to-text technology in Denmark

In 2021, a group of colleagues managed to establish a working group in Denmark, specifically to raise the bar for speech-to-text services. We tried modern captioning software and found that it was much better quality than the system that we traditionally used for speech-to-text services in Denmark.

Our acquaintance with the system began at a Nordic conference in September 2021, where two speech-to-text interpreters used it. The conference was in English but interpreters used simultaneous translation into Danish. This was a tremendous success and the interpreters spread the news about the system to their colleagues in Denmark. In October 2021, it was decided that Danish speech-to-text interpreters needed to upgrade their education and learn to use modern captioning software.

When we first suggested to the Danish speech-to-text community that our methods needed an upgrade it was not met with enthusiasm. This was to be expected, because pointing out problems in existing practice is often seen as complaining about others’ work. But now that speech-to-text interpreters in Denmark have started using modern captioning software they find it interesting to work with and have noticed that they produce a much better product.

Now that physical meetings have returned after the worst phases of the pandemic, it is possible to provide the speech-to-text service as subtitles on the presentation screen in the room. This service has become very popular in our community. At first, some users of the speech-to-text service worried that they might not be able to read the text on the screen quickly enough, because they were used to using a separate screen where the text remained visible for longer. For most users, however, the subtitles on screen have worked very well. Those who prefer to use the speech-to-text service on a separate screen can use a separate tablet.

Recently, the secretariat of the Danish Association of the Hard of Hearing decided that automatic translation into Danish cannot be used. According to the association, the level of translation is not good enough. We as users are working on this because we have found it quite useful. For example, for European meetings where there is a British speech-to-text service the organisers have used automatic translation, which has been a tremendous support for hard-of-hearing participants. These automatic services are also recommended by the WHO. However, since the majority of Danish speech-to-text interpreters are employed by the Danish Association of the Hard of Hearing, they cannot choose otherwise.

Areas to develop in Danish speech-to-text reporting practices

Danish speech-to-text and sign language services operate under the Danish National Interpretation Authority (DNTM) which operates under the Ministry of Social Affairs. It seems that fewer Danes with hearing loss apply for speech-to-text services than for sign language interpreting. This ought to be the other way round, since deaf sign language users are a smaller group than orally speaking people with hearing loss. Deaf sign language users can read as well.

However, the low demand for speech-to-text services in Denmark comes as no surprise because the quality of the service has traditionally been considered low by clients. This bad reputation is partly due to live subtitles on TV, which are poor quality. DNTM and the Danish media work on different sectors and they do not co-operate. However, as long as live subtitling on TV is at the current level, it is bad PR for speech-to-text services in general. Users of the services give presentations about the possibilities of new, better services, and are active on social media about the topic. They are also actively in contact with both the DNTM and media. Sadly, the development of these services has still been very slow.

When applying for speech-to-text services, one used to send an email to the service provider. Now there is a digital form, which is more practical and gives a better overview of possibilities, but there is no box to tick for the use of modern captioning software. This would be useful, especially for the elderly members of the Danish association who do not know the possibilities of the new technology and are reluctant to ask for it as an extra service. Also, according to my own experience, Danish speech-to-text interpreters often do quite minimal preparation, probably because DNTM does not pay a salary for preparation time. In general, the interpreters seem not to have the technical equipment needed to save vocabulary from documents that they receive before meetings.

In need of research and education

Our working group also found out that there is practically no ongoing research into speech-to-text reporting in Denmark. There is some research about sign language, but we have been told that there are no resources for research on speech-to-text services. Research is carried out on speech-to-text reporting in the Netherlands and in Sweden, but Danish officials do not consider it necessary. They have also told us that speech-to-text reporting will probably soon be automatic and, because of that, there will be no need for live speech-to-text interpreters. This argument is problematic, since the Danish association has found the quality of the automatic translation for international meetings to be insufficient. Also, since Danish is a relatively small language, the necessary technological development for transcribing it automatically will take a long time, especially when no research is being done in the field. Automatic speech recognition technology also needs research to be developed and maintained.

Speech-to-text reporting is also not being used when teaching deaf and hard of hearing pupils at school. This might result from an old educational belief that one must be able to hear to learn to read. However, speech-to-text reporting is used in the Netherlands, not only in special schools but in ordinary schools in inclusive settings. According to those experiences, speech-to-text reporting seems to support both language and reading skills.

Speech-to-text interpreting is implemented as a very small part of the sign language interpreter education for professionals in Denmark. In Sweden, the education of professional sign language interpreters and speech-to-text interpreters has been split up and is now separate.

Conclusion

To sum up, the basic rights of Danish clients of speech-to-text services are not met owing to several problems with the current services, insufficient knowledge in administrative staff and no research being done on the topic. However, there has recently been some progress in raising the quality of the service. It has been especially encouraging to see how Danish speech-to-text interpreters have been extremely engaged to develop their work and to familiarise themselves with modern technology. I believe that we will eventually get better quality services, with close co-operation between speech-to-text professionals and clients – even if it takes some magic, more than three wishes and a wand in the little fairy tale Denmark.

Aïda Regel Poulsen is a teacher for the deaf and hard of hearing and an educational audiologist. She has taught university-level technical and educational audiology and is the author of online teaching materials for children with hearing loss.

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