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Sign language: Basics

When we talk about the process of language acquisition, we

have to consider the fact that what is/can be acquired by
most children is speech.
So, just as most children of Hindi-speaking or Tamil-speaking
parents naturally acquire Hindi or Tamil at a very early age,
similarly the deaf children of deaf parents naturally acquire
Sign (or Sign Language).
So, the ASL, ESL or SLF, SSL or even IPSL are the names of the
sign languages that deaf children acquire as they grow up in
these countries/areas.
Historically speaking, very few teachers of the deaf learned
ASL, or even considered it to be a real language at all.
For many people, Sign wasnt language, it was merely
Sign vs. Gesture:
Although both Sign and gestures involve the use of the
hands (with other parts of the body), they are rather
Sign is like speech and is used instead of speaking.
Gestures, on the other hand, are mostly used while
Examples of gestures are making a shaking movement of
the index finger of your while speaking but also telling by
the gesture to someone to not do something.
Also when you are giving a talk but you want to tell
someone to open a bottle or jar for you by making a
twisting motion with one hand involves gesturing.
The gestures are just part of the way in which meaning is
expressed and can be observed while people are speaking
and signing.
In the study of non-verbal behaviour, a distinction can be drawn
between gestures and emblems (allegory = a visible symbol
representing an abstract idea).
Emblems are signals such as thumbs up (=things are good) and
shhhh (= keep quiet) that function like fixed phrases and do
not depend on speech.
Emblems are conventional and depend on social knowledge e.g.
what is and isnt considered offensive in a particular social world.
For example, in Britain, the use of two fingers (the index and
middle finger) raised in a V-shape traditionally represents one
emblem (= victory) only when the back of the hand faces the
But it is a different emblem (=I insult you in a very offensive way)
when the back of the hand faces the receiver of the signal.
Therefore, it is important for all of us to know the salient features
of the emblems before visiting different places.
Another point that we must understand is that within the set
of gestures that accompany speech, we can distinguish
between those that echo= the content of the spoken message
and those that indicate something being referred to.
Iconics are gestures that seem to be a reflection of the
meaning of what is said.
For example, when we trace a square in the air with a finger
while saying Im looking for a small box is an example of using
the gesture with the speech.
Therefore , an iconic gesture by itself doesnt mean the
same as what is said, but it may add meaning.
It would be a good idea to discuss C.S. Pierces distinction and
nature of sign here.
As we know Pierce has made a tripartite distinction of Sign
and they are icon, index and symbol.
C. S. Peirces Icon, Index, Symbol
Every sign works in different way as well as on different levels.
Some signs are closely related to the things they represent
and look exactly like them these signs are called ICONS.
All these images are iconic,
some are more motivated than
ICONIC signs communicate
truth, reality, seriousness
In contrary, in sign language this
has very different value, and

this value is due to a very different system that is/has been
evolved for sign language as a means of communication.
An index is a sign which is related to the object it represents but not
directly or in a concrete way.
For example, a knock on the door an index of arrival. The knock is
not ARRIVAL, it is not a direct representation of arrival, but it
indicates arrival and is connected to that event.
Most facial expressions work in an indexical
way because you cannot represent an emotion,
we look for signs which indicate them e.g a smile
is an index (or sign) of happiness. The smile
isnt a direct representation of happiness.
Indexes are used to represent abstract things emotions, ideas etc.
The smile and happiness on Kats face might be misguiding, let us
see some more examples of indexes:
Symbols are signs which have NO link at all with the thing it
The only reason we know what they mean is because we have learnt
what they mean over time.
Words are symbols there is no actual link between the word table
and the object because if there was, the word would be the same in
all languages.
People decide to give labels to various objects in an arbitrary, random
way and as long as others agree to these, we all know what each of
the symbol means in the language.
For example pachyderm or pachiderm is the random label (symbol)
applied to which animal?
Pachyderm refers any of the various non ruminant hoofed mammals
having very thick skin: elephant; rhinoceros; hippopotamus
What is this symbol?
Another commonly known gesture is what we call deictics. The
term deictic means pointing and we often use gestures to
point to things or people while talking.
We can use deictics in a context when we use our hand to indicate
a table (with a cake on it) and ask someone Would you like some
We can also use the same gesture and the same table (with cake
no longer on it) when we later say, That cake was delicious.
In this case, the gesture and the speech combine to accomplish
successful reference to something that only exists in shared
memory rather than in the current physical space.
This use of deictics later paved the path for the development of
the complicated system of signing which we know as sign
Types of sign languages:
There are two general categories of language involving the use of
signs: alternate sign language and primary sign language.
By definition, an alternate sign language is a system of hand
signals developed by speakers for limited communication in a
specific context where speech cannot be used.
In some religious orders where there are rules of silence, restricted
alternate sign language is used e.g. by monks in a monastery.
Among some Australian Aboriginal groups, there are periods (e.g.
times of mourning) when speech is avoided completely and in
such situation an elaborative alternate sign language is used.
In all these examples, the users of alternate sign language have
another first language that they can speak.
In contrast, a primary sign language is the first language of a group
of people who do not use a spoken language with each other.
BSL, ASL, SLF, and IPSL etc. as used for everyday communication
among members of the deaf communities in Britain, America,
France and India-Pakistan are primary sign languages.
It was only after the work of Stokoe (1960) that the ASL was
given the status of a natural language.
Before this, it was genuinely believed that the use of sign
language by deaf children would actually inhibit the
acquisition of the English language.
Spoken English was given too much weight and a teaching
method known as oralism dominated deaf education during
most of the twentieth century.
This method required that the students practice English
speech sounds and develop lip-reading skills.
Despite the insistence, in educational terms, most deaf
children could not achieve anything.
Whatever the reasons, the method produced few students
who could speak intelligible English (less than 10%) and even
fewer who could do lip-reading (around 4%).
While oralism was failing, the use of ASL was surreptitiously
Many deaf children of hearing parents actually acquired the
banned language for deaf at schools not from the teachers,
but from other children.
Since only one in ten deaf children had deaf parents from
whom they acquired sign language, it would seem that the
cultural transmission of ASL has been mostly carried out from
child to child.
There has been substantial change in deaf education in recent
years, but there is still an emphasis on the learning of English,
written rather than spoken.
As a result, many institutions promote the learning of what is
known as Signed English (also called Manually Coded English
or MCE).
MCE is essentially a means of producing signs that correspond
to the words in an English sentence, following the word order
of English language.
In many ways, Signed English is designed to facilitate
interaction between the deaf and the hearing community.
Its greatest advantage is that it seems to present a much less
formidable learning task for the hearing parent of a deaf child
and provides the parent with a communication system to use
with the child.
For similar reasons, hearing teachers in deaf education can
make use of Signed English when they sign at the same time
as they speak.
However, Signed English is neither English nor ASL.
When used to produce an exact version of a spoken English
sentence, Signed English takes twice as long as the production
of that same sentence in either English or ASL.
Origin of ASL:
It would be very surprising if ASL really was a sort of gestured
version of English, as some have claimed.
Historically, ASL developed from the French Sign Language used in
a Paris school founded in the eighteenth century.
In the 19
century, a teacher from this school, named Laurent
Clerc, was brought to the US by an American minister called
Thomas Gallaudet who wanted to open a school for deaf children.
Clerc not only taught deaf children but he also trained other
During the nineteenth century, this imported version of sign
language, incorporating features of indigenous natural sign
languages used by the American deaf, evolved into what came to
be known as ASL.
Such origins help to us explain why users of ASL and users of BSL
(in Britain) do not share the common sign language.
MYTH 1: Signed languages are not true language
because lack writing, speech
Writing is a derivative of language
Approx. 57% of the worlds languages are
Historically, languages have been spoken long
before they have been written down
Main difference between spoken and signed
languages is mode of communication (vocal-
auditory vs. manual-visual)

Sign language is universal
Many different signed languages
They are mutually unintelligible
American Sign Language British Sign Language
Sign language is purely iconic
Some signs are
house, eat, cat,
milk, sit

MYTH 3, cont.:
Sign language is purely iconic
But, if all signs were iconic
Non-signers would understand sign language
All deaf people would have same signs
Wouldnt be able to sign abstract concepts
Recall: Iconicity occurs in spoken languages to
some degree (onomatopoeia)
ASL has dialects (e.g. candy)

MYTH 4: ASL encodes spoken English into signs
Manually Coded English
translation of English in
1-to-1 encoding
used to teach English to
the Deaf
used for words for which
there is no sign

MYTH 4: ASL encodes spoken English into signs, cont.
Simultaneity vs. sequentiality
English is sequential: phonemes (as well as
morphemes and words in a sentence) are linearly
In signed languages, meaning-bearing units are
produced simultaneously
e.g., English noun-verb distinction:
create vs. creation walk vs. walker --word ending
ASL noun-verb distinction