Sign Language and Child’s Play

Would you be surprised to learn that there are over 6,000 spoken languages in the world today, and that speakers of one language can’t understand the vast majority of the others? No, of course not. Then why is it surprising to learn that there are hundreds of different sign languages that are not mutually intelligible?

American Sign Language (ASL) is part of the same language family as Quebec Sign Language (LSQ), French Sign Language (LSF), and Irish Sign Language (ISL), but it is unrelated to and not mutually intelligible with the BANZSL family of sign languages, which includes British, Australian, and New Zealand Sign Languages. In other words, we would expect an American hearing person and a British hearing person to be able to understand each other just fine, but an American deaf(1) person could not understand a British deaf person; he or she could, however, understand a French deaf person to some extent.

Why is this?  Isn’t sign language just a signed version of a spoken language, or a universal Esperanto of the deaf? In a word, no. These two mutually exclusive possibilities, however, seem to be the most common assumptions of hearing people, who often manage to hold both of them at once. Although spoken language communities (often countries) in most cases have a corresponding sign language, the sign language is a language in its own right and not at all a word-for-word translation of the spoken language. For example, to express the meaning of the English sentence “I have two brothers,” ASL would use the word order “I have brother two”—ASL does not have plural markers per se. ASL also mostly lacks words for intensifiers like “very,” and where it has them they are rarely used; instead intensity is conveyed iconically by intensity of gesture. There are, in fact, “sign languages” that translate a spoken language into gestures word for word, or even phoneme for phoneme, but they are no one’s native language and many are holdovers from earlier eras of deaf education. See Wikipedia’s page on Manually Coded English for details.

Then are sign languages totally unrelated to the spoken languages they share territory with? Not necessarily; ASL and English, for example, are related in somewhat the same way as English and French, an important difference being that in the latter case the two have influenced each other while in the former case the influence has been one-way. Many hearing people are aware that there is an ASL alphabet, with 26 signs for each of the 26 letters in the Roman alphabet. Other sign languages use an entirely different set of 26 signs to represent the Roman alphabet; British Sign Language, for example, uses two-handed letter-signs, while ASL uses one-handed ones. Using these letter-signs to spell out words (fingerspelling) is only one technique of forming signs in ASL, and the fact that it is used to the extent that it is is a result of widespread English literacy among ASL users. ASL users are in effect bilingual; they speak ASL and read English, so if they need to express some concept or especially a proper name that lacks a word in ASL they can expect to be understood if they fingerspell the English word, in the same way we resort to French for, e.g., au contraire, esprit de corps, etc. In casual ASL conversation, according to one study, about 8.7% of words are fingerspelled. The rest are non-alphabetic (iconic) signs, although the letter-signs often play a part. For example, the ASL sign for Gallaudet University, the world’s only deaf liberal arts university, is a motion near the head with the hand forming a ‘G’ sign, the first letter of Gallaudet. This is not uncommon; for example, the ASL word for “king” is a sign across the body with the hand in the ‘K’ shape in America, but in Malaysia (where a close relative of ASL is used) the motion is the same with the hand in the ‘R’ shape, for “raja” (“king”).

Upon hearing that there are multiple completely different sign languages throughout the world, people have asked me if it wouldn’t be more efficient to have just one. The answer, of course, is that it would indeed be more efficient, in the same way it would be more efficient (thought not necessarily better) to have just one spoken language, but we don’t have that either. “But isn’t sign language a relatively recent invention?” people have asked. “At least, more recent than spoken language?” Not really; sign language has existed as long as there have been communities of deaf people.

In fact, it couldn’t be otherwise. All children raised around other people have a native language. Hearing children who are not provided with a spoken language will likely invent one; deaf children not provided with a sign language will also likely invent one. To better understand this, consider another natural tendency of children: playing games. A friend of mine recently told me about a game he used to play as a child using a log in the school playground. Two kids would stand on the log, one at either end, and each would attempt to force the other off by pushing, shoving, and feinting. This simple competition struck me as a testament to the ability of children to innovate rule-based games from whatever they have to work with, whether action figures or dead trees.

The language instinct works similarly: given other people to communicate with, children will develop and systematize a language. When we teach children English, we are ensuring that the systematic language they end up with will match the one we speak. If we don’t teach children a language but allow them to interact with each other, they’ll come up with one on their own. The classic example of a children-innovated language is Nicaraguan Sign Language. Until the late ’70s, deaf children in Nicaragua were isolated and communicated mostly with their families, through the half-language known as home sign. Then, shortly before and during Sandinista rule, a couple of schools for deaf children opened in Managua. Although the schools focused (unsuccessfully) on teaching students to read lips and fingerspell, the children had enough unsupervised time to start communicating in a pidgin cobbled together from home signs, ad-hoc improvisations, and a bit of fingerspelling. This pidgin, the Lenguaje de Signos Nicaragüense (LSN), is still spoken by some who attended these schools in their early years. Since then, in the hands of newer students who learned LSN at an even younger age, the pidgin has evolved into the Idioma de Signos Nicaragüense (ISN), a fully systematized creole language complete with complex verb and spatial agreement and a syntax entirely unlike that of Spanish.

ISN has been called the world’s youngest natural language, but it shows how old sign language must be. The diversity within the world of signs mirrors that within the world of speech, which, ultimately, is no surprise; spoken or signed, language appears to be a result of a natural human faculty for systematization.

(1) Some people prefer to capitalize “deaf” (“Deaf”). Similarly, some people prefer to capitalize “black.” I see no reason to do this, especially in the former case where no confusion is likely—in the latter case there can be phrases like “black cars” where it could conceivably be unclear if the color or the race was meant. I don’t think there’s any use appealing to the “logic” of English here; we capitalize nationalities (“Uruguayan”) but not professions (“plumber”),  affiliations (“Freemason”) but not beliefs (“atheist”), so it doesn’t seem too inconsistent to me if we capitalize ethnicities (“Hispanic”) but not races (“white”). “Deaf” doesn’t quite fit in any of these categories, but in general I think we should err towards capitalizing as little as possible.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


2 Responses to “Sign Language and Child’s Play”

  1. Why aren’t sign languages influenced more, grammatically, by the language of the surrounding country if deaf people are, as you say, bilingual? It seems to me that if a deaf person in, say, the U.S. learns English first, through reading, it would be easier to learn ASL if the grammatical structure were more similar to English. And I would think that when ASL first arose, those who developed it were already familiar with the grammatical structure of English. Why would they come up with something so different?

  2. I don’t think it’s necessarily accurate to say that deaf people learn to read before they learn sign language. I would imagine that in general, today at least, the opposite is true. After all, hearing people learn how to speak well before they learn how to read. As for those who “developed” ASL, it’s important to remember that ASL was “developed” in much the same way English was: they both evolved out of previous languages and countless instances of individual communication, although with a fair amount of conscious guidance from above.

    I don’t want to exaggerate, though, the extent to which ASL and English are different. English and ISN, for example, are much more different. I think some of the differences between English and ASL are simply due to the different means of communication. For example, in English we use “very” and similar words to intensify adjectives, while in ASL they would probably use more or less vigorous gestures to indicate the same thing. English could be more like ASL in this respect, if we used the pitch or volume of our voices as intensifiers rather than the word “very.” My guess is that we don’t do this because it just takes less effort to modulate the intensity of gestures than it does to modulate the pitch or volume of voices, but it might also be because English, unlike ASL, has been a written language for a long time, and has most likely been optimized for that purpose somewhat. Pitch and volume cannot really be represented in our writing system. Well, volume can be represented THROUGH THE USE OF CAPITAL LETTERS, but even then it’s only binary (normal voice or YELLING VOICE, no in-between) and not permitted in formal writing.

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