Sign Language Is Not Universal

By Carrie-Jean Walker

More than five percent of the world’s population—or 466 million people—has disabling hearing loss. That is 432 million adults and 34 million children. It is estimated that by 2050, over 900 million people—or one in every ten people—will have disabling hearing loss.

I have a Deaf son. I’m American and Swedish. We’ve lived in Sweden, and we now live in France. We learned Swedish Sign Language (Teckenspråk) in Sweden, and of course, now we are morphing into French Sign Language (Langue des Signes Française or LSF) to communicate here.

French Sign Language is the native language of approximately 100,000 native signers in France. It’s also one of the earliest European sign languages to gain acceptance by educators, and it influenced other sign languages like ASL, ISL, and Russian Sign Language (RSL).

We are bilingual in sign language—Swedish and French. This leads to all kinds of rather extraordinary cultural experiences. When I explain this, I’m often asked, “But I thought sign language was universal?” This is a story about how sign language is not the same everywhere.

This is an important topic in the Deaf world, as I’ve learned about from being involved in the Deaf community. First of all, we all know that oral languages are not universal. Why should signed languages be? A giant, Hearing linguist didn’t one day use his language skills to magically create an official form of communication for all Deaf people. They’ve been able to communicate from the beginning—they just can’t hear. In fact, new sign languages frequently evolve amongst groups of deaf children and adults.

In fact, there are more signed languages than oral languages. There’s a simple reason for this: it’s a basic human instinct to communicate with others, and the Deaf have traditionally been segregated from mainstream Hearing society for lots of reasons. They were often found on the outside of the action, isolated in groups who developed their own means of communicating. The groups were smaller, however, so there were more of them, and they developed with their own variations, as any language does.

Sign Language Is Not a Word-for-Word Version of Oral Language

The most common misconception about signed languages seems to be that they are a signed, word-for-word version of the local or dominant oral language. This is not at all the case. They are organic languages with their own grammars: phonology (yes!), syntax, morphology, and pragmatics. Hand and finger shape and position in front of the body, as well as facial expressions, all matter for meaning. Being visual, they use different means to create poetry, for example, and some of it is pretty funny!

Americans and Brits are often said to be “divided by a common language,” but the deaf communities in the two countries don’t have a common language. British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) are not even in the same language family.

Today, as another example, most people in Ireland speak English. But Deaf people in Ireland use Irish Sign Language (ISL), which is actually derived from French Sign Language.

An interesting footnote about ISL: many Irish deaf students were educated in Catholic schools that separated students by gender. So for a time, men and women each had their own dialects of ISL. These differences have diminished over time with more integration.

No Standard, International Signed Language

In an effort to relieve this confusion, someone (maybe that giant, hearing linguist?) tried to invent an international signed language, called Gestuno, but the naturally evolved signed languages won out. I don’t know much about it, because like Esperanto, it isn’t practiced as a first language, and not many people know it in addition to their own signed language, and it never replaced the natural ones.

ASL is probably the most universally used for the same reasons that spoken English is present in cross-cultural communication. ASL isn’t an official standard; however, the only Deaf university in the world is in Washington, DC, and ASL definitely dominates the Web in terms of information available. ASL is claimed by some to be the third most commonly used language in the United States.

Things have changed rapidly. I remember an elderly Deaf woman in Sweden telling me that perhaps 50 years ago, she and her classmates were required to sit on their hands in Deaf schools as kids so that they wouldn’t sign amongst themselves. In Sweden, you can now choose your official “mother tongue” with the government, so you can have information in your own language, and Swedish Sign Language is one of the choices. All government websites and other official information have sign language as an option in their communication. You can request an interpreter from the government to interpret meetings held by your local governmental administration.

This is in contrast with Denmark, where the advances in technological solutions (and lots of hearing aid companies) have inspired a different approach. There is more emphasis on improving one’s ability to hear through hearing aids and cochlear implants, to help with integration in mainstream society. It is true that signing sets the Deaf apart from the Hearing world and creates its own culture, norms, and mores, but it also creates isolation from those who don’t sign.

In France, things have changed more slowly, but they are progressing. French Sign Language (LSF) was not recognised as an “official” language by the government until 2005. What does it mean for LSF to be an “official language”? For one thing, it means that LSF counts for translation.

My Son: Communicating Across Deaf and Hearing Communities

My son got his cochlear implant in Sweden when he was eight years old. This is very late—they normally implant in newborns or in those who lose their hearing later in life and thus have a memory of hearing. Because we had trouble getting an implant in France, by the time we got to Sweden, he was older. But they tested him and decided he had heard enough in the womb that it would be worth it to try, even knowing that there is a high risk of rejection in a case like his. To mitigate this risk, we implanted only one side.

Well, he rejected it. He didn’t like hearing. In fact, after eight years in silence, he found sounds pretty psychologically violent. It exhausted him to try to process all of that noise (even the sound of human voices was just noise to him), and he constantly asked to take them off. We insisted he keep them on at school, so the first thing he always wanted to do when he got home was to take a bath so he could take his hearers out. We continued to give him a chance to learn to hear, but in the end, he preferred to be a Sign communicator.

As a parent, my only real concern about this is that it has reduced the size of the world with which he can communicate. I speak several languages, however, and I understand that any language, no matter how small, is a gateway to communication—you just have to find the right people.

Thus I did what other parents of Deaf children do: I found a good Deaf school for him. In France, this means boarding school. As a mother, it was difficult for me to think of sending my young boy away during the week. Did he really need to leave home so young, just because he’s Deaf? Not fair, I thought.

The first week of school was hard. I was sure he was confused and overwhelmed.

When he returned home on Friday afternoon, I learned that it was not so hard for him! He was like a fish who had moved from a bowl to a pond. He could communicate with people other than just me! They understood him! And they signed back! He was telling me about his roommate, the school park, the food, the structure of his week, the sports, his teachers… All of these are things he would have communicated with only me in the past, and now he has a whole community.

He still can only communicate effectively with a small community, of course, but it’s the size of a whole school system, and they know each other well, because they consider it their own distinct culture. They come attached to whole families and a larger community of Signers.

When he comes home and is out in the wider community, he is still limited to me and his brother for more than the most basic communication, but this is less important now, as he doesn’t expect others to speak his language, and he’s not dependent on that. This makes all the difference. He gets along with Hearing people just fine, as long as they are willing to slow down a little and accommodate a language barrier. He loves to socialize and observe and mimic and imitate—and he’s found a way to do it all without exchanging an oral word. He has somewhere to go to talk about things now.

On the tramway in our city, we often run into Deaf people. We recognize each other, because we’re signing or because they’re gesturing at their phones. This always leads to a conversation. Inevitably, someone will then ask us why we’re saying this or that using such a funny sign. We explain that we learned to sign in Sweden, and they chuckle about our “accent.”

The Benefits of Being Multi-Lingual—Speaking and Signing

I’ve gone from a childhood in the United States with one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, to France, where the numbers are much smaller, then to Sweden, with only 9 million people. But that wasn’t enough; we had to choose a language that only one percent of those 9 million people can use. We are very elite indeed!

Over time, we’ve developed a sort of creole at home. We probably still use Swedish Sign as our base, on which we build French signs and grammar, but like every family, we have our own vocabulary that comes from living together and in lots of different places. I think only three people in the world really sign like we do, but we have the capacity to understand a lot more of what other people are signing. This makes it really fun to eavesdrop.

CARRIE-JEAN “CJ” WALKER (cj@firehead.net) founded Firehead in 2007 when she spotted the need for a bespoke recruitment and training service for multinational clients who have needs in technical communication. Firehead has grown over the years to include content management, content strategy, and a place in the new economy for linguists in AI and human-machine interfaces.

CJ is Past President of STC’s Transalpine Chapter, Past President of TCEurope, current member of Council at ISTC as International Rep, a member of the Information 4.0 consortium, and an organizer of many educational conferences in the field. She’s passionate about the techcomm field and works to build community and visibility for content’s place in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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