7 Things You Should Know About Sign Language

Based on the tremendous reaction to this recent piece about sign language interpretation, we thought you might like to know more about it. Here are seven things about sign language that might surprise you.

1. Different countries have different sign languages.

This is the sign for the word "math" in two different sign languages—American Sign Language on the left, and Japanese Sign Language on the right. Why should there be more than one sign language? Doesn't that just complicate things? This question would make sense if sign language was a system invented and then handed over to the deaf community as an assistive device. But sign languages, like spoken languages, developed naturally out of groups of people interacting with each other. We know this because we have observed it happen in real time.

2. Given a few generations, improvised gestures can evolve into a full language.

In 1980, the first Nicaraguan school for the deaf opened.

Students who had been previously isolated from other deaf people brought the gestures they used at home, and created a sort of pidgin sign with each other. It worked for communication, but it wasn't consistent or rule-governed. The next generation who came into the school learned the pidgin sign and spontaneously started to regularize it, creating rules for verb agreement and other consistent grammatical devices. Over time, it stabilized into a full-fledged linguistic system, ISN, or Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua.

3. Sign language does not represent spoken language.

Source: Photo 1; Photo 2

Because sign languages develop within deaf communities, they can be independent of the surrounding spoken language. American Sign Language (ASL) is quite different from British Sign Language (BSL), despite the fact that English is the spoken language of both countries. The above picture shows the sign WHERE in BSL (on the left) and ASL (on the right).

That said, there is a lot of contact between sign language and spoken language (deaf people read and write or lipread in the surrounding language), and sign languages reflect this. English can be represented through fingerspelling or artificial systems like Signed Exact English or Cued Speech. But these are codes for spoken or written language, not languages themselves.

4. Sign languages have their own grammar.

There are rules for well-formed sentences in sign language. For example, sign language uses the space in front of the signer to show who did what to whom by pointing. However, some verbs point to both the subject and object of the verb, some point only to the object, and some don't point at all. Another rule is that a well-formed question must have the right kind of eyebrow position. Eyebrows should be down for a who-what-where-when-why question (see ASL WHERE picture above), and up for a yes/no question. If you use the rules wrong, or inconsistently, you will have a "foreign" accent!

5. Children acquire sign language in the same way they acquire spoken language

The stages of sign language acquisition are the same as those for spoken language. Babies start by "babbling" with their hands. When they first start producing words, they substitute easier handshapes for more difficult ones, making for cute "baby pronunciations." They start making sentences by stringing signs together and only later get control of all the grammatical rules. Most importantly, as seen in the above video, they learn through natural interaction with the people around them.

6. Brain damage affects sign language in the same way it affects spoken language.

When fluent signers have a stroke or brain injury, they may lose the ability to sign, but not to make imitative or non-sign gestures. They may be able to produce signs, but not put them in the correct grammatical configurations. They may be able to produce sentences, but with the signs formed incorrectly, creating a strange accent. They may be able to sign quickly and easily, but without making any sense. We know from studying speaking people that "making sounds" is quite different from "using language" because these functions are affected differently by brain damage. The same is true for signers. Neurologically, making gestures is quite different from using sign language.

7. Sign language is a visual language.

This one is pretty obvious, but it's important to mention. Sign language is just like spoken language in many ways, but it's also different. Sign can be very straightforward and formal, but it can also take full advantage of its visual nature for expressive or artistic effect, as shown in the story in this video. Which, when you think about it, doesn't make sign language all that different after all. For expressive purposes, we can take full advantage of spoken language's auditory nature. We can also take advantage of facial expressions and gestures when we speak. Everything that would be in an artistic spoken performance—the words, the ordering of clauses, the pauses, the breath intake, the intonation and melody, the stressing or deemphasizing of sounds, the facial and vocal emotion, the body posture and head and hand gestures—come through together in sign language. It looks amazing not because it shows us what sign language can do, but because it shows us what language does.

25 Endangered Languages You Should Hear Before They Disappear

Irish isn't just a nationality or heritage—it’s also a language. Otherwise known as Gaelic, the language has less than 450,000 speakers, making it one of 2500 endangered languages around the world. By the turn of the century, at least half of the world’s spoken languages are expected to go extinct, according to UNESCO [PDF].

Financial services website GoCompare reached out to native speakers of 25 endangered languages and had them record a translation of a quote by Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini in their mother tongue. The phrase was “a different language is a different vision of life”—a reference to scientific evidence that language not only shapes the way we think and perceive the world around us, but also shapes our culture.

One of the languages featured in the project, the Australian indigenous language of Wiradjuri, is spoken by just 30 people. The continent was once home to 250 indigenous languages, but only 40 of those are still spoken. Wiradjuri is seeing something of a revival, though, and schools in several areas are now starting to teach the language.

Nawat, a language spoken in El Salvador, has just 200 speakers remaining. Also known as Pipil, the language evolved from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. According to historian Laura Matthew of Marquette University, some Nahuatl speakers in El Salvador are too ashamed to speak their mother tongue in public because of prejudice that persists in the country. Matthew and others around the world have started projects in an effort to preserve important documents in endangered languages and encourage more people to learn about them.

Below is the full list of languages that were included in the project:

Aymara: Bolivia, Chile, Peru
Balti: India, Pakistan
Basque: Spain, France
Belarusian: Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Ukraine
Breton: France
Choctaw: USA
Cornish: England
Guaraní: Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil
Irish: Ireland
Kalmyk: Russia
Limburgian: Netherlands, Germany
Lombard: Italy, Switzerland
Nafusi: Libya
Nawat: El Salvador
North Frisian: Germany
North Sami: Finland, Norway, Sweden, Russia
Ojibwe: USA
Ossete: Georgia, Russia
Quechua: Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina
Venetan: Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Brazil, Mexico
Walloon: Belgium, France, Luxembourg
Welsh: Wales
West Frisian: Netherlands
Wichi: Argentina, Bolivia
Wiradjuri: Australia

Linguists Say We Might Be Able to Communicate With Aliens If We Ever Encounter Them

If humans ever encountered extraterrestrials, would we be able to communicate with them? That was the question posed by linguists from across the country, including famed scholar Noam Chomsky, during a workshop held in Los Angeles on May 26.

Organized by a scientific nonprofit called Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), the one-day event entitled "Language in the Cosmos" brought together two camps that don't usually converge: linguists and space scientists. The event was held in conjunction with the National Space Society's annual International Space Development Conference, which featured the likes of theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, Amazon CEO and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, SpaceX's Tom Mueller, science fiction writer David Brin, and more.

Linguist Sheri Wells-Jensen, chair of the workshop, said in a statement that it's unlikely we'll ever come face to face with aliens or find ourselves in a "Star Trek universe where most of the aliens are humanoid and lots of them already have a 'universal translator.'" Still, scientists don't rule out the possibility of chatting with extraterrestrials via radio.

Chomsky, who's often regarded as the father of modern linguistics, was optimistic that extraterrestrial life forms—if they're out there—might observe the same “universal grammar” rules he believes serve as the foundation for all human languages. His theory of universal grammar posits that there's a genetic component to language, and the ability to acquire and comprehend language is innate. Chomsky argues that a random mutation caused early humans to make the “evolutionary jump” to language some 40,000 years ago through a process called Merge, which lets words be combined, according to New Scientist. (Not all linguists are convinced by Chomsky's theory.)

At the workshop, a presentation by Chomsky (of MIT), Ian Roberts (University of Cambridge), and Jeffrey Watumull (Oceanit) argued that "the overwhelming likelihood is that ET Universal Grammar would be also be based on Merge." They said grammar would probably not be the greatest barrier in communicating with aliens; rather, understanding their "externalization system," or whatever channel they're using to communicate, could be the greatest challenge.

Another presentation by Jeffrey Punske (Southern Illinois University) and Bridget Samuels (University of Southern California) drew a similar conclusion. Human languages have physical and biological constraints, some of which are grounded in physics, so it follows that extraterrestrial languages would be limited by the same laws of physics, the linguists said.

Douglas Vakoch, president of METI, said in a statement that these theories represent a "radical shift" for scientists working in the field, who have "scoffed at the idea of creating interstellar messages inspired by natural languages." Past radio messages sent out into space relied on math and science, in hopes that those principles are universal.


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