July 16, 2024


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Myths of Sign Language Debunked

Myths of Sign Language Debunked

Myth One: Sign language is just gestures. It’s not a language at all.

There is evidence that early humans started communicating in gestures. Later, the gestures developed into a proto language and then a full-blown language. Spoken language could have been developed in a similar fashion. For example, different grunts could mean different things. Then the grunts could have developed into more refined syllables used in a proto-language. Then finally, a full-blown spoken language could have developed. There could have been too many words to deal with and as a potential result, structure could have been imposed on the words to be able to handle the multitude of words. At which point do grunts become words of a spoken language? At which point do gestures become the signs of a true language? There are too many grunts to assert that spoken language does not exist. Similarly, there are too many gestures to assert that sign language does not exist.

Myth Two: If sign language is iconic and photographic, then it couldn’t be a language.

This kind of reasoning is illogical. According to research, iconic signs are still too abstract for non-signers to figure out. Only the most basic signs like EAT, DRINK, and SLEEP appear to be universal. There is no valid reason why a language couldn’t be both iconic and abstract. English has some iconic, phonographic words, like the sounds that animals and things make, for example, cock-a-doodle-do, moo, woof, chime, ring, tick-tock, etc. That doesn’t make them any less of a word than other words of English.

Myth Three: Sign language has no order or structure. For example, SVO order does not exist in American Sign Language (ASL).

There is research that found evidence of both order and structure in sign language. The structure and ordering of signs appear to follow the structure and ordering of words when there is a minimal use of space around the body to express concepts in parallel. There are various ways to use space to express more than one concept at a time. For example, a different group of signs called classifiers dictate the structure and ordering.

Myth Four: Sign language has a direct one to one correspondence to spoken language.

English has many words that mean the same thing. One sign in ASL can represent all these English words with essentially the same meaning, for example, beautiful, gorgeous, good-looking, etc. can all be signed with one ASL sign BEAUTIFUL. At the same time, different signs in ASL, like bipedal-RUN, quadpedal-RUN, OPERATE, MANAGE, COMPETE, etc, can represent the different meanings of the English word “run.”

In addition, translations between ASL and English are not straightforward because of the use of space to express multiple concepts at the same time. This is akin to foreign language translations when words don’t directly translate between each other.

Myth Five: Sign language is slower than spoken language.

Research has found that the use of space and other cognitive shortcuts in ASL make it comparable in speed to English. It is not slower or faster. It is just different.

Myth Six: Sign language is completely separate from spoken language.

There is a general trend to emphasize that sign language is completely separate from spoken language. I found evidence to the contrary. It is more likely that spoken language concepts, meanings, and cognitive structures influence the signed language. For example, in English, adjective come before nouns being described. This is apparent in ASL. In Spanish, adjectives come after nouns being described. This seems apparent in sign languages originating in Latin America.

Also, vocabulary concepts and idioms developed separately in sign language could be borrowed into spoken language by bilinguals. For example, some ASL interpreters say CHA and PAH! Another example is that the ASL idiom of TRAIN-GONE was published as a title of a book, Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World, by Leah Hager Cohen. Yet a final example is the ILY sign, used around the world by both hearing and deaf people as a virtually universal gesture.

Myth Seven: Sign language should be eradicated.

Sign language represents cultural knowledge, similar to the languages of the Native American Indians. It also has its advantages. The Navajo code talkers used their native language to communicate vital war plans during WWII. In a similar fashion, people can communicate in signs where spoken communication is not desired, practical, or feasible. For example, signs could be used in covert operations underwater or in outer space. Audio technology is needed to support spoken language in these situations and using it could blow their cover.