How Much Do You Know About Sign Language?
You might know how to say the alphabet in sign language. You might know a couple "universal" signs. You might have seen people signing to each other once or noticed an interpreter off to the side at a play or religious service. How much do you really know though? Do you know that different countries have different versions? Do you know that even in America there are many different types and even different signs depending on the region?
You do now! Many people think sign language is just like spoken language or that it's simple and basic, but it's not. Sign language is just as complex as diverse as any other language.
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Not every single country has their own sign language, just like not every country has their own spoken language. There are many different versions though. The version most similar to American Sign Language is French Sign Language because the language was brought to America from France by Laurent Clerc who then started the first school for the Deaf.
Also like spoken language, sign language has slang. Sometimes the slang in American Sign Language (ASL), for example, does coincide with the slang in spoken English, but sometimes it doesn't. Much of what can be said in spoken English can be translated to ASL, including common idioms and metaphors. ASL Pro is a great resource for conversational phrases and idioms. The website has lists of common phrases with videos that show the signs for them.
The above link includes translations for idioms such as "bite off more than you can chew," "backseat driver," and "open a can of worms," just to name a few.
You've probably heard the term "deaf and dumb," but do you know how it came about? Using American Sign Language as an example, the grammar and sentence structure are both very different from spoken and written English. Because of that, some deaf people, hard of hearing people, or children who are raised by deaf parents who use ASL have a hard time reading and writing English. In the past, this led people to believe they were dumb. In reality, they just had a language barrier.
In English, sentences are generally arranged as subject/verb/object. Time indicators usually go last if there are any. Sometimes time indicators aren't even necessary because others can tell what you mean by verb tense. For example:
I went to the store yesterday.
In strict American Sign Language, the biggest noticeable difference is that there are no articles. That means no a, an, or the. To is also not often used, and the verb to be doesn't really exist in any form. The other main difference is the arrangement of sentences. The sentence structure is topic/comment which usually ends up being subject/object/verb. Time indicators usually come first, although there is more leeway with that. It's useful to put them first though because verbs do not have tenses. The only way to know whether someone is referring to the past, present, or future is by context or by an indicator such as yesterday, today, tomorrow, past, now, future, Monday, Tuesday, etc. The example sentence then becomes:
YESTERDAY STORE I GO.
Judging by normal English standards, that sounds unintelligent. Judging by ASL standards, it's correct. That's why deaf people were often labelled as being dumb even though that was far from the truth.
ASL, however, is not the only form of sign language in American. There are forms, such as Sign English, that do in fact use the same grammatical structure as English and do contain words such as a, an, the, be, and were.
In spoken languages, at least in English, poetry, and the flow within it, is created through the use of word sounds. Rhymes, alliteration, rhythm, and musicality all contribute, and poetry's greatness is based on how it sounds. In sign language, poetry is all about how it looks. Hand shapes, movements, direction, motions, and repetition all come into play. Some signs have a similar movement, take place in the same area of the body, or have the hands in the same shape. Think of it as alliteration or rhyme in a visual sense.
The video below is a great example because it has captions, but it's also easy to see the similarities in movements and shapes she makes with her hands.
Sign language requires the use of the hands and the body to convey words and messages, but it also requires facial expression. Facial expression helps to give context to what is being signed. Sometimes signs have two meanings, and the facial expression is necessary to figure out which word is being used. Facial expressions also give connotation or show the extent to which a word is meant (such as long time or extremely long time). Hearing and speaking people use tone of voice as a way to express different meanings, emotions, sarcasm, etc. Deaf and hard of hearing people use facial expression. There are even certain expressions or facial movements that go with specific signs always. When learning ASL, facial expression is, surprisingly, one of the hardest things to learn. Eventually though, it becomes natural just as it is when speaking.
If anyone does a good job of using facial expression, it's Keith Wann. He's not deaf, but he is a CODA (Children of Deaf Adults) and a sign language comedian. You can see him in the video below.
Whether you're deaf, hard of hearing, or hearing, sign language is a beautiful language as rich and complex as any spoken or written language. It has its similarities to spoken languages, but it also has its differences. It is ever growing and changing with the times, and learning it allows you to communicate with a whole community of people you couldn't communicate with before.
If you're interested in American Sign Language and would like to see more, you might also enjoy this page about a high school sign language show and the impact it has on students and the community, explained through pictures, audio clips, and video.
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