SIGN CODES AND SIGN LANGUAGE: COMMUNICATION WILLIAM Linguistics
TWO ORDERS OF
Gallauder College, Kendall Green,
Deaf children, like all children, are horn with a capacity for language; i.e. the symbolization and expression of cognitive functioning. Until the age at which hearing children are talking, deaf children communicate well with others, using their sight, touch, and other actions-the common gestures in the culture of their caretakers. The chief problem in communication arises when hearers reject the deaf child’s gesturai symbolization of his developing language knowledge. The problem is aggravated by insistence that the child use speech as do those who hear. Linguistic, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems may then follow, because of the attitude and actions of the hearing. All these problems can be resolved by early recognizing that the deaf person has a language and by honestly trying to learn and use it. This language is not a set of signs standing for spoken words but a complete language with its own rules for making sense in signed sentences.
Looking at the first symposium can see only one problem-although
question as an anthropologist and linguist, many others may grow from this one.
Q. “What special cognitive and emotional problems arise as a part of being a deaf person?” A. The special problem of communication underlies all the rest. A deaf baby has the same fear of falling as a hearing baby, and presumably the same fear of loud noises, but, depending on the nature and the degree of the deafness, few or no noises may be loud enough to provoke that fear. The deaf baby also has the same receptive and responsive faculties for tactile communication with self, with others, and with the inanimate world just outside the skin. The deaf baby has the same visual receptors and the same facial and bodily structure generally as do all members of the species. As long as communication can be handled by the totality of behavior and not made linguistically specific, the deaf baby gets along fine-so well in fact that it is extremely difficult to ascertain for many months of life if there is a hearing deficiency; it is impossible to be specific and accurate about any baby’s hearing for some years. (Notoriously, grandmothers, who have years of experience of child rearing, judge infant deafness with more success than do most professionals.) The hearing child, according to recent studies (e.g., Huttenlocher, 1973, understands words and longer utterances spoken to it or near it long before the
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ability to produce language output develops. And neonates have been found able to discriminate among speech sounds and among voices. How does this square, then, with our general observation that deaf infants do all right for a time? Thus I believe: these studies testify to the general truth that human beings are born with a capacity for language-a very special kind of communication system. Also, they show that, in normal circumstances, this capacity finds realization in listening, only later in talking. However, the relatively good adjustment of the very young deaf child to its surroundings testifies also to a more fundamental truth: communication includes language, and language does not include communication. Moreover, language is a cognitive function which may be symbolized either vocally or gesturally (Kendon, 1975). Goldin-Meadow and Feldman (1975) find that deaf children 1‘/z to 4 years old develop both a lexicon of gestures and a rudimentary grammar for combining them-but, without receiving either spoken language or any language-like gestural input from parents or others. This testimony corroborates a great deal of evidence collected over the past 20 years, evidence to the effect that language is cognitive, language is brain function, and language, although most of the time symbolized in sound, can be language when it is symbolized in bodily movement . Back to the first problem. At the age when the ability to talk and understand becomes a central factor in any child’s adjustment, the deaf child’s central problem, communication, is glaringly apparent. It began long before, of course, but it looms up at the end of the second year as a huge problem because it has not been noticed earlier. If we take an ethnographer’s or an ethologist’s view, we see clearly that this problem arose long before the child was first observed not to react typically to loud sounds. Nor did it arise when the child passed the normal age for early speech without producing typical output. This communication problem arises instead whenever people who hear and speak encounter people (young or old) who do not. Ethnocentric and chauvinistic bias-which classes all speakers of “foreign” languages and dialects as a little suspect-consigns those who “speak” and understand through gesture to outer darkness. Viewed thus, the problem arises not because a deaf person cannot think, symbolize, and express ideas but because hearing persons reject the deaf person’s natural gestural expression of his inner language. Stated another way, the central problem of communication arises when caretakers (who include parents, medical and other consultants, teachers, and educational authorities) identify speaking and hearing American English with language, identify oral and literary proficiency in English with cognitive development, and identify gestural activity as anti-language. The ethnocentric identification of language, speech, and thought, along with the rejection of the deaf person’s sign language, makes the communication
SIGN CODES AND SIGN LANGUAGE
problem at once a cognitive and emotional one. The deaf child’s true cognitive development gets ignored by all except those increasing few who have realized that language is not coextensive with speech. Then, the deaf child’s attempt to develop enough cognitive competence to be detected by monolingual speakers of English is made doubly difficult. First, the language which the child is supposed to be learning is presented in ways that assume it has already been learned. Second, the attitude of rejection makes the whole educational process selfdefeating. Deaf children do not know what it is like to hear, and so to have the power of speaking and of understanding speech as a natural gift. More deeply still, deaf children cannot understand why their hard-won ability to get along fine, to name, to combine, to modify, and otherwise to operate cognitively and symbolically, an ability they have possessed ever since they became conscious, now suddenly becomes something to be punished and despised for using. It is little wonder that there arise at this stage all kinds of specific linguistic, cognitive, and emotional problems. The trouble, however, with looking at the first symposium question in this way is that the “possible strategies” mentioned in the second question now have to be directed not at the deaf person at all but at those who interact with him. This especially is true in the early stages of the deaf child’s life. But problems are where we find them. The parents, pediatricians, audiologists, psychologists, and all others who at first- or second-hand touch the deaf child’s life must be shown that cognitive normality can perfectly well develop from communication and that language can be symbolized gesturally rather than vocally. They must be shown also that linguistic normality remains independent of its expressive mode-if cognition and brain function rather than social norms are considered; that sign language can be referentially as efficient as it is known to be emotionally effective; and that deaf persons, like hearing persons, learn to improve communicative effectiveness naturally if given a responsive environment. As a recent Washington Post editorial pointed out, after reporting the dearth of good writing in our schools, persons in our society have no need to write well; our technology supplies telephones and other devices that make it unnecessary. If deaf persons’ communications with hearing persons were to be made more emotionally satisfying, then their learning of hearing persons’ actual language usage (not an idealized textbook norm) might improve of itself. It may appear that the strategies to help the cognitive and emotional problems we are now considering work like that instant tranquilizer which is marketed in aerosol cans with these directions: “To use, spray on the people who are bugging you. ” Actually this is not quite the case. The first targets of our spray jet must be those who will not let the deaf child grow cognitively and emotionally through the use of naturally learned sign language, but deaf persons too can cause these problems to multiply. The deaf parent who says, “I’m not interested in sign language; I want my child to use straight English,” needs to be shown that the best way to English competence may be through competence in a sign language.
But enough for now of strategies and even tactics. The general and specific behavior patterns called “strategies” and “tactics” get their names from military science, which tells us that strategies ultimately, and tactics immediately, depend on the nature of the weapon at one’s disposal. What needs to be done depends then on a clear understanding of sign language. As the,texm “sign language” is usually employed, it has two very different meanings not clearly distinguished. If there are deaf persons in attendance at such a meeting as this, either the speaker or an interpreter will be using so-called sign language to make the speaker’s ideas intelligible. In this sense “sign language” is in fact a substitution code, and no matter how complex the code, the language is actually English. Basic in the code are signs used to encode most of the content words, the nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs of English. Important also are additional code systems designed to carry into visibility the “nuts and bolts” words and particles of English. The oldest and most widely used one of these supplemental codes is fingerspelling-a hand sign for a letter. With the use of a conventional hand alphabet, words like a, an, the, is, of, and of course any other short words can be encoded quickly and easily. The receiver of this code is expected to know English like a native speaker, not to be only learning it, and to be literate in English as well. The second of the supplemental codes starts out to furnish signs used to encode not letters or root meanings only but also the infectional particles like -ing, -ed, -s, -er, etc., and the derivational affixes like ult- meaning ‘not’ and -ment meaning the result of the verb to which it is attached. But even in its earliest stages of invention, the developers of this kind of code decided to make resort to fingerspelling unnecessary. Therefore all the exemplars of these “Manual English” codes include signs also for a, ~12, the, of, and all eight forms of be. They go further and revise the basic code, substituting new signs or sign sequence for old, when the traditional sign is different from the one thought best by the makers of the new code system. If the receiver of fingerspelling, ideally, is that person who knows English spelling and the hand code for it, the receiver of the new Manual English systems is that person familiar with the rules of the particular code in use and with the inflectional patterns (and exceptions) and the derivational systems of English. All the foregoing still explains only the first meaning of “sign language,” i.e., one or more substitution codes of hand shapes and gestures for English words, particles, or letters. The second meaning of “sign language” differs radically. In this sense, Sign, or American Sign Language (ASL), is a separate language with a grammar distinct from the grammar of English. For example, in English one says: (a) Have you eaten (b) I haven’t seen it
SIGN CODES AND SIGN LANGUAGE
but in Sign, one signs: (c) FINISH EAT (d) LATE SEE Of course, by writing the sign as an English word, one seems to beg the question of distinctness. The words in caps are used here for signs, because in some of their uses the signs do have a meaning that the word more or less appropriately translates. The actual equivalence, however, is of sentence (a) to (c) and of (b) to (d), and not of any word to any sign. In (a), all the words are necessary (although they may come out sounding like “view eaten”) if one is to speak English, and their forms cannot be changed without changing the particular message they convey. In the equivalent Sign sentence (c), only two words are shown as markers for signs, because the direct address to the second person (you) is made in Sign nothing more than a look. A pointing finger, YOU, can be used, with or without the look, but there is nothing strange in the way Sign expresses either direct address or question. All of us all our lives have expressed these ideas with looks alone on occasion. In (b), the form of the sentence tells us that the object not seen is something perfectly clear to both the speaker and the addressee; but the rules of English grammar require reduction of the full reference to whatever it stands for to an unstressed pronoun, and the rules also require the speech output to keep in something (it, thar, umgh) to complete the structure. (The sentence, I haven’t seen, with full terminal juncture, could be the response of a blind person to a question about the time of onset of his visual impairment.) In (b)‘s equivalent, sentence (d), the first sign incorporates two semantic elements, negative and completion (in reverse order as have and not in English). The second sign, SEE, accomplishes for Sign grammar rules what seen it does for English (see Woodward, 1973, 1974, for additional discussion of negativeincorporation, a grammatical feature peculiar to Sign; also Stokoe, 1972, for discussion of verb signs which in fact are expressions of the whole structure represented by V + NP). These few examples present but a glimpse of a few features in the grammatical system of Sign, a language as interestingly different from English as vision is different from audition. Even so, it is possible to look now at Sign as the weapon upon which tactics and strategies can be built. Tactically, to use, and acknowledge use of, Sign as a grammatically complete language will often result in a welcome reciprocity: the deaf person addressed in a reasonably grammatical use of his own sign language by a hearing person will show a willingness to reciprocate by using or learning to use grammatical English. A strategy based on such tactics will help alleviate the central problem of communication, which arises as a special part of being a deaf person and therefore should lessen most of the cognitive and emotional problems that grow from that.
I would like to conclude with a personal comment. In 20 years at what is still the only liberal arts college in the world exclusively for the deaf, I have seen and thought about more problems than I have been able to deal with in my professional publications. One such problem is the striking contrast between the activity and results of two groups of associates. The first group’s mission is to teach English to the deaf, i.e., the language called English and the literature written in English. Literally and figuratively this group finds that its efforts fall on deaf ears. The other, whose mission is to find out what can be found out about the system called Sign and the deaf persons who use it, is in constant communication with deaf persons; and judging by the animation, enthusiasm, and completely voluntary presence of these deaf persons, excellent communication is being achieved. References Goldin-Meadow, S., Feldman, H. The creation of a communication system: a study of deaf children of hearing parents. Sign Lang. Studies, 1975, 8, 225-234. Huttenlocher, J. Language and intelligence. In Resnick and Glaser (eds.), New approaches to intelligence. New York: Erlbaum, 1975. Kendon, A. Gesticulation, speech and the gestural theory of language origin. Sign Lang. Studies, 1975, 9, 34%374. Stokoe, W. C. Semiotics and human sign languages. The Hague: Mouton, 1972. Woodward, J. C., Jr. Inter-rule implication in American sign language. Sign Lang. Studies, 1973, 3, 47-56. Woodward, J. C., Jr. Implicational variation in American sign language: negative incorporation. Sign Lang. Studies, 1974, 5, 2G30.