Have you ever thought that sign language is not ‘really’ a language, but just a loose collection of gestures that imitate oral languages? Or that there is one sign language that is universally understood?
If you have, you are not alone.
Misconceptions about sign language are much more common than people think. The two mentioned above serve as an interesting starting point to explore sign languages and their relationship with Deaf1 communities.
Sign language or signed language
Although sign language has been used by deaf individuals and communities throughout history, it was thought for a very long time to be little more than mimicry and therefore inferior to oral language.
In fact, it was not until the 1970s that linguists demonstrated beyond any doubt that sign languages behave just like oral languages. They have unique grammars, are acquired as first languages, and develop naturally in any deaf community.
The poster child for this discovery is the birth of the Nicaraguan Sign Language in the 1970s and 80s. At that time, there was no Deaf community in Nicaragua and deaf adults communicated with a range of unrelated home sign systems.
But when a vocational school for the Deaf was set up, something amazing happened.
The deaf children gathered in the school transformed the various home sign systems they learnt from their parents into a fully functioning language which grew more complex with each subsequent generation.
This was a rare opportunity to witness a language, sign or oral, naturally come into existence without intervention or planning. As a result, academics were convinced that sign languages are biologically innate just like oral languages.
Sign languages around the world
But there’s more.
As if things could not get more complex – not all signing is sign language.
Deaf sign language – which spontaneously evolves in deaf communities – differs from other forms of manual communication seen in Deaf communities, such as auxiliary sign systems and manually coded languages (MCLs).
The wide variety of sign and sign-based languages makes determining the number of sign languages in the world a huge challenge. The 13th edition of Ethnologue estimates a total of 137 living sign languages globally, but the real number is probably much higher.
But one thing is certain.
With the exception of International Sign, which is used by the World Federation of the Deaf and at international Deaf events, all countries around the world have their own sign language or, in many cases, languages.
It is true that some countries share similar sign languages, although they may go by different names. But these similarities do not parallel that of oral languages. People often find it surprising that British Sign Language differs greatly from American Sign Language (ASL), which is historically influenced by French Sign Language.
But sign languages typically only exist where there are deaf communities. Where none exists, auxiliary sign systems develop. These include house signs used by deaf members of predominantly hearing families, and pidgins that develop when sign language meets oral language.
To help deaf children learn the oral language spoken around them, MCLs are invented and used by educators. These systems are not technically sign languages, but oral languages encoded in sign. Nonetheless, they often affect the development of sign languages.
Signing and society
Unfortunately, while sign language has been well-studied and validated within the academic spheres, this understanding and recognition has not gained much traction in many societies.
Legal and social recognition of sign language remain a great source of concern in Deaf communities, as it affects the rights of deaf people to access essential services, such as education, legal advice and medical treatment.
Increasingly seen as a separate linguistic community, sign language users have grown to include not only the deaf, but also their relatives and friends, and other interested people. Together they form the Deaf community, which creates a supportive and vibrant culture for deaf and hearing people.
Interpreters bridge communication between the deaf and the hearing and make accessible activities such as theatrical performances, movies, and TV broadcasts. In countries where deaf people are familiar with oral language, close captioning is a popular alternative.
In well-established Deaf communities, the use of sign language has even gone beyond daily communication to embrace artistic expression. Popular art forms that feature signing include signed poetry, signed singing, movies, and Deaf theatre.
Sign language in Singapore
How about in Singapore?
The local Deaf community communicates with a mixture of sign systems. Since the 1950s, the native Singapore Sign Language (SgSL) naturally evolved, with influences from Shanghainese Sign Language used by early Chinese migrants.
When Signing Exact English 2 (S.E.E.2) was brought to the island in 1977 as a means to educate deaf children, many ASL signs entered SgSL. This resulted in the now commonly used Pidgin Signed English (PSE), which uses spoken English word order with simplified or reduced grammar.
Currently, exciting research into SgSL is done by the Linguistic Sub-Committee at the Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf). They aim to set up a sign bank to record locally developed signs and also to better understand SgSL so as to create resources for the general public as well as members of the Deaf community.
Over the years, much progress has been made in understanding sign language and Deaf communities. Schools and even universities, such as Gallaudet University, have been established that use signing.
In fact, the rights of deaf people to sign language is now protected under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Yet while we celebrate these milestones, we cannot take them for granted. In many societies, sign language is still denied deaf people and often thought of as an inadequate alternative to oral language.
It is perhaps time some of these misconceptions be corrected!
1 While ‘deaf’, with the lower case ‘d’, refers to people with hearing disability, ‘Deaf’, with the upper case ‘D’, refers to a culture that flourishes around deaf people.