Thursday, October 17, 2013

#SignWriting, #sign languages - an #Interview with Valerie I

The biggest challenge for a #language to gain permanence is to be written. Many languages became written languages by adopting an existing script. Sign languages are fundamentally different and therefore there was no script to adopt.
Valerie Sutton, a ballerina, developed a method to register dance movements. Linguists who researched sign languages asked Valerie if this could be applied to sign languages. Many iterations later, SignWriting became an ISO recognised script, it is known to be used by at least 40 sign languages that all may gain their Wikipedia.

When I asked Valerie to answer ten questions, her response was to ask the SignWriting community for their opinion. This, the first part, explains the need for sign languages. As it is the most often asked question about sign languages it deserves a full response.

Some people say "Why do they not use English?" .. How different is a sign language from a spoken language?
A lot of Deaf people DO use English … ;-)

Deaf people who use a sign language as their primary daily language, also use English as their second language. But, they cannot hear their second language, English, and American Sign Language (ASL) and other sign languages are rich languages that give a deep communication that is more profound than speaking a second language you struggle to hear, or cannot hear at all… Lip reading does not give all the sounds made on the lips, and many conversations have to be guessed at most of the time… They say that at best, lip reading gives 30% understanding and everything else is guessed at….

So if a signing Deaf person, whose primary language is American Sign Language, lives is in the United States or English-speaking Canada, they have to get around, and they learn English to get by

Just as I learned Danish when I lived in Denmark. Learning a second language is a requirement and you do your best… But there was one difference for me - I can HEAR Danish, which was my second language years ago when I lived in Denmark… I would have found it much harder to learn Danish if I were Deaf and could not hear it…And truth be told, if I really wanted a deep and profound communication, I would always migrate back to my native language English. My second language did not give me the true communication of my native tongue.

So the question is really not "why one language is better or easier that the other?" but instead a realization that deafness creates a barrier to learning spoken languages, and that first and second languages are different experiences… Deaf people are not choosing one language over the other, but instead managing the best they can between the hearing and Deaf communities.

Both signed and spoken languages are good languages and should be equally respected. And it is my feeling that everyone should learn another language if they can. Hearing people who speak English as their native language oftentimes enjoy learning American Sign Language, but no one asks them why they just don't use English?! (at least I hope not ;-)

In school we are asked to learn a foreign language…so why not learn American Sign Language or other signed languages?

And in return, Deaf people spend most of their lives learning spoken languages to the best of their ability and I give them my utmost respect for the hard work I know they must go through everyday...

Some Deaf people are born into Deaf families. Deaf children in Deaf signing families have a native language, sign language, from the beginning, so their language development is early and considered the same as a hearing child's language development. Spoken languages are a "second language" to everyone in the Deaf family. So they do not feel "different" than their parents or siblings.

Deaf children born into hearing families sometimes have a harder time, because oftentimes the family doesn't even know the child is deaf until later, and so language development may not start early, and also they are different than their own parents and family members.

So native signing Deaf people have their own native language, a sign language, and yes, the grammar and structure of American Sign Language, for example, is quite different than the grammar and structure of English. Verbs are conjugated differently, adverbs and adjectives are in different positions in the sentence, and there are elements of American Sign Language that are much more sophisticated than in English, or at least expressed very differently, and so oftentimes there is not a real way to translate between the two languages that is a true "match"… what takes a paragraph in English can be expressed with a short phrase in ASL, and vice versa… Some say that the grammar of ASL is closer to Russian or Spanish than it is to English...

That is why SignWriting is important. When both languages can be written, both languages can be compared, and understood better…

Val ;-)

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