Friday, January 13, 2012

Sign Language: Not Just for the Hearing Challenged

One language that requires no sound, voice, or speech is sign language. It does not rely on audio like the other languages of the world. The development of sign language has made life for many people, hearing and hearing-challenged, easier, safer and more enjoyable. It has allowed hearing challenged individuals to communicate effectively with others without the use of writing implements and electronic gadgets. At the same time, it has made deaf and mute members of a community become integral members of the society in which they belong.

Sign language is transmitted visually. Hand shapes, hand gestures, movements of the arms or the body, and facial expressions are used to send a visual message to another person. What seems to be a collection of hand movements, gestures and facial expressions that hearing challenged individuals often display is a real, highly developed language. Apart from developing a finger alphabet based on a specific language, specific gestures are created for individual words. Sometimes, gestures come with matching facial expressions or body movement (or both.) Once a basic gesture is created for a specific word, it can be further developed to add more information related to the gesture. There is a constant building upon a specific gesture's meaning in order to convey additional information that the original gesture alone cannot adequately convey.

For the uninitiated, it may seem that sign language improves only the quality of life of the deaf, mute and near-deaf people. This is not true at all. Sign language has applications for people who hear perfectly every sound that can be heard in the world.

History of signing

Sign language developed in places where at least one person in the community was deaf. This is why there are scores of sign languages in the world. Some are more fully developed than others and a number have been given official status as a language for a particular country. It may be safe to say that one of the oldest, if not the oldest, ways by which humans communicated was through sign language. Before the spoken word was born, people must have relied on gestures, movements and expressions. 

In the 5th century BC, Socrates already mentioned the use of sign language. In early Jewish society, sign language and lip-reading were present since the 2nd century Judea. By 1620, a Spanish priest named Juan Pablo Bonet developed a manual alphabet for use in communicating with the deaf or mute people. A Frenchman who lived in the 18th century named French Charles-Michel de l'Epee has often been credited mistakenly for creating the language of signing. He actually built upon the Old French Sign Language that already existed in Paris during his time. Some sources said that Abbé de l'Epee based his sign language method on Bonet's. Abbé de l'Epee's manual alphabet has been in use since the 18th century both in France and in North America. He opened the very first school in France that catered to deaf children.

In the United States, the first deaf school was opened by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet in 1817. His partner was Laurent Clerc, a graduate of Abbé de l'Epee's school. Gallaudet's son Edward became the founder of a liberal arts college for the deaf in the District of Columbia in 1857. The college was built and recognized through the efforts of a number of concerned and dedicated individuals including United States Postmaster General Amos Kendall. This college was the first and only one in the world. The college eventually became Gallaudet University in 1864. Today, it still stands as the only university in the world where the programs and services cater to deaf and hearing challenged students.

Sign language has continued to develop and is an invaluable visual language used throughout the world. Different cultures have their own sign language that stands side-by-side with their spoken and written languages.

Why different sign languages?

Although there exists an International Sign used during events attended by deaf delegates from different countries, each country or cultural group has its own form of sign language. Many of these different sign languages developed from a specific base language. The American Sign Language (ASL) relied heavily on the French Sign Language in developing ASL. Countries like Australia, Britain, and New Zealand, although all English-speaking nations have their own versions of a sign language.

The language of signing takes into consideration the culture where it is employed. Each culture has its own special words and phrases that are not found in other cultures. New signs were created for these unique terms in order for the community using the specific sign language to communicate effectively.  Filipino Sign Language for instance was based on the ASL. But, it has signs for terms and phrases unique to the Filipino culture. Even in Mexico and Spain where Spanish is the predominant language, their sign languages are not the same.

A country's deaf population would create sign language counterparts for their own language. They may choose to use another country's sign language but only as a base to build on. If a country is made up of different regions, it is likely that each region or each dialect within that country has its own version of sign language. At the very least, regional words and phrases are incorporated into the country's predominant sign language. In the United States alone, there are three different sign languages: American Sign Language, Hawaiian Pidgin Sign Language and Plains Indian Sign Language.

Benefits of Sign Language

It is an obvious fact that the deaf, mute and hearing-challenged members of the community that benefit most from the use of sign language. They are able to work for companies who have deaf-friendly policies in place. They can also get an education from schools that have a deaf-friendly curriculum, deaf-accommodating facilities and services, faculty, and administration.

For non-deaf individuals, sign language can be used when, for some reason, verbalizing a thought, idea, request or need is not possible. When one is unable to speak due to an illness for instance, signing is a good way to let another person know what one needs or wants. In places where it is important or necessary to maintain silence, sign language can prove to be very useful. In places of worship, during chess tournaments, operas, classical music concerts, plays, movies, while hunting (so as not to spook the prey) and while participating in other similar activities where silence is golden, sign language can be used to get a message across minus the sound.

Scuba divers have their own set of gestures that they use in communicating with each other underwater. In occasions when the background noise is too loud, like in a rock concert or in a noisy dance hall or sports arena, people can communicate via sign language. In recording studios, movie sets and television sets, gesturing is common when talking is not allowed. Sign language allows communication between people separated by soundproof glass or closed windows.

For people involved in law enforcement and the military, using signs is one of the best ways to communicate without alerting suspects or enemies that may be in hearing distance. Those in the medical profession like doctors, nurses and caregivers need sign language skills when they are involved with the hearing-challenged.

Knowing how to sign fluently can develop into a career. On television, you can find at the corner of the screen a person signing what is being said verbally. You can also find people who sign at symposiums, meetings and other gatherings. This is such a big service to the deaf community. Businesses that are manned by staff who know how to sign can attract hearing-impaired individuals thus increasing the company's bottom line.

Learning how to sign gives a person new insight into the world of people who live in perpetual silence. They can appreciate the world in a new way minus the sometimes endlessly deafening din of the environment. It gives people an additional way of communicating with others. Knowing how to sign is an excellent way to be in community with the sector of society that is hearing-challenged.

Sign language is just one of the many languages in the world.

Photo Credit: by  doozle

1 comment:

Angeline said...

Sign language is one of the best ways to communicate with people who have hearing and speech impairment. I have a friend who is a deaf mute. So, I studied American Sign Language. It allows me to communicate with her easily.

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