Most people think that signing is something that deaf people do.

That is true but such an assertion misses a whole swath of the population that communicate in sign while being perfectly capable of hearing. Furthermore, it overlooks the fact that there are many reasons for signing beside the inability to hear.

And, it focuses on only one aspect of sign language while totally disregarding everything that sign language represents.

If you count yourself among the hearing population, you may never have given any thought to learning how to sign. We’d like to challenge that position with a few, well-laid-out arguments. Points that you possibly hadn’t considered until now.

Today, Superprof raises the topic of sign language, with the hearing and the deaf, to get a better understanding of this often marginalised form of communication.

As always, you’re invited to chime in; we have a whole comment section below waiting for your thoughts!

What Is Sign Language?

Sign Language: a system for communicating with people who cannot hear… Oxford Learner’s Dictionary

To get the most concise picture possible on this topic, we turned first to our trusty Internet... and got more than we bargained for.

Take a close look at the definition of ‘sign language’ put forth by the Oxford dictionary.

Shocking as it is in its obtuseness, the idea that signing is only for people who cannot hear was replicated in the Collins dictionary and in Merriam-Webster, the preferred dictionary in the US, also in Wikipedia…

Encyclopaedia Britannica was the first site we ran across that did not directly link sign language to deafness. Being unable to hear features in their article on the topic but it is not the first reason given for people to sign.

Clearly, we have our work cut out for us if we’re going to impress upon you that learning how to sign is a good idea if every knowledge outlet proclaims signing is for deaf people.

People who sign tend to be more receptive
There are few external signs that show someone is deaf: a graceful fluency of movement is one, as is heightened receptive skills, and maybe a service dog Image by skeeze from Pixabay

The best place to start is by outlining what sign language is – beyond the limiting definition it’s given.

Sign language is a means of communicating that generally involves using one’s hands, arms and sometimes upper body to convey ideas.

The gestures and movements of sign language each have a specific meaning and, for the most part, are language-specific.

For example, someone who is proficient in American sign language might sign ‘where?’ by holding up their index finger while frowning, appearing for all the world like a focused academic getting ready to make an important point.

By contrast, someone signing in BSL or British Sign Language would hold both hands, palms up and fingers splayed, with an open facial expression if s/he wanted to ask ‘where?’.

Signing should not be confused with body language, the subtle form of communicating context and mood on a subconscious level that humans excel at, whether they want to or not.

However, it can be compared to being in a loud, crowded market and signalling to your partner who is further down the aisle than you that you have found the bananas and will buy three pounds’ worth, followed by a raised eyebrow in askance.

When seen in that context, we can assure you that sign language has been around since before spoken languages.

Did you know there are apps and resources available to help you learn sign language?

Incorrect Perceptions of Signing

Besides the grossly limiting belief that signing is only for the deaf and hard of hearing, there are many misperceptions about sign language that persist still today.

One we touched on already is that signing is signing, regardless of the languages represented. We talked about ASL versus British sign language but the disparity goes even further.

Just as there are many different types of English, French and Spanish, there are an estimated 300 sign languages in use around the world, yet they are all represented by graceful, expressive movements that anyone signing executes.

That fact rather begs the question: is there a universal sign language? Yes… and no.

Gestuno is not a language in itself; rather it consists of a set vocabulary, established by the World Federation of the Deaf, that participants use at international meetings.

So, if a Chinese signer meets someone who uses French sign language, there would be barriers to their communication… just like there would be if they communicated verbally in their indigenous languages.

People for whom sign language is their primary method of communication routinely connect with spoken language by reading lips and by reading and writing.

For all of that, signing is not a word-for-word mirror of spoken language; even the grammar differs between signed and spoken languages.

Deaf students have it so much better today than a century ago
Deaf education has come a long way since the deaf schools of the 19th century Source: Wikipedia Credit: Library of Congress

A Word on Sign Language Interpreters

Often, we think that sign language interpreters function like any other interpreter: they convey into speech a word-for-word translation of what is being signed. Some perceive this act to be without special cognitive input; merely a matter of converting one form of ‘speech’ to another.

Now that we know that sign language does not mirror spoken language, we have to realise that there is a fair bit of intellectual activity behind the act of ‘translating’ sign language.

Moreover, the act of voicing – speaking aloud what is said in sign, often bolsters the perception that the hearing impaired need to be given a voice.

Could it be that those in the deaf community already have a voice and we, by not learning how to sign or understanding sign language, are effectively shutting their voices out?

If ever anyone needed a reason to learn sign language

Reasons to Learn Sign Language

Strangely enough, while most people would take up language studies for a variety of reasons – travel, work or to exercise their brain, many do not contemplate learning sign language unless they’ve had an intimate brush with deafness.

Deaf children exemplify this statistic.

Parents of children with intact hearing and no other barriers to communication seldom give much thought to learning sign language, much to their and their children’s detriment.

Studies have shown that the Terrible Twos are made so terrible because those toddlers have ineffective communication skills. Not through any fault of their own, of course; they are simply too young to have developed expressive skills.

They are not too young to sign, though. You can teach your baby basic signs for ‘more’, ‘drink’, ‘sleep’, ‘food’ and other words.

By establishing this early means of communication, you will provide your child with a way to forestall frustration at not being understood, all while jumpstarting the language learning processes in his brain.

Your child will continue to reap the benefits of baby sign language well into his academic career; studies have shown that those taught to communicate at an early age have an expanded vocabulary and generally score higher on exams.

Learning sign language helps your brain, too!

Just like anyone who is bilingual, you will become a better multitasker, more focused and a better listener. You may even get a boost in salary for knowing how to communicate in another language!

Whether your child is a baby or falls on the autism spectrum – another great reason to learn sign language, you should follow these tips for learning sign language

Does video communications give new meaning to phonology
Smart phones with video technology has helped deaf people be more communicative over long distances Source: Wikipedia Credit: David Fulmer

Advantages of Knowing How to Sign

The preceding segment might have already highlighted reasons to learn sign language but, in case you need more, we now present advantages to signing that have nothing to do with the deaf or hard of hearing.

  • New professional opportunities: besides increasing your employability with a genuinely marketable skill, you can work as a sign language interpreter.
  • Discover new levels of expression: visual language compels its users to dig deep into expressive means of communicating
  • Learn about deaf culture: far from being recalcitrant about speaking with hearing, people who are deaf are happy to welcome people into their world.
  • Sharpen your spelling skills: fingerspelling is not language any more than spelling orally equates to speaking but it is a way to reinforce the connection between signing and conventional spelling
    • You may finger-spell your name until you are given a name sign – a sign that represents you.
  • Have secret conversations: nobody will overhear you say anything in sign language!

Sign language is an oft-overlooked branch of linguistics because many believe it only applies to the deaf.

It might take a while for mainstream society to acknowledge that learning a sign language is a form of language acquisition, as valid as learning any other foreign language, and that it offers benefits similar to learning French, Spanish or Mandarin.

As you learn sign language, you will find your facial expressions become more targeted, mirroring what your speech is saying and that your gestures will become more graceful and fluent than when speaking your first language.

You may even be given a whole new name – a name that better reflects who you are than the standard names we’re given by our parents. In fact, you may be given many names; one for each social situation you may interact in using sign language.

Aren’t you keen to find out where you can find sign language courses so you can get started signing?

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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.