Thursday, November 06, 2003

Languages Signed & Spoken

As I mentioned a few months ago, I've been interested in sign language for a while now for no good reason. At the moment, I don't know anyone who is deaf, and other only ASL "speakers" I've known are a housemate who was a Deaf-outreach coordinator for PETA and a coworker who was studying ASL to become a sign interpreter, and it's been years since I've seen or heard from either of them.

Still, D.C. is locus for the Deaf community and Deaf culture, in large part because of Gallaudet. It is not uncommon to run into people having conversations in ASL on the Metro or at the Zoo or elsewhere around town. I only know about six signs, so it's not like I can eavesdrop, but I do (discreetly) try to watch for patterns or signs that I do recognize. I do the same thing whenever I hear someone talking a language other than English; it's sort of a game for me to see if I can figure out what language is being spoken.

In this vein, Evelin checked out from the university for me Many Ways to Be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf Communities edited by Leila Monaghan, et al. It's and interesting collection papers solicited at symposia worldwide about Deaf culture and sign language, running the gamut from historical pieces about British manual alphabets of the 17th Century to the modern genesis of Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua (ISN) to pedagogic strategies to the role of signing in Deaf identity among various communities worldwide.

Especially interesting was "Romance and Reality: Sociolinguistic Similarities and Differences between Swiss German Sign Language and Rhaeto-Romansh" by Penny Boyes Braem, et al. The authors compared Rhaeto-Romansh with Deutschschweizerische Gebärdensprache (DSGS) because both are threaten minority languages that have official recognition. Comparing the legal status of both languages, past and present attitudes toward them, and future prospects for the languages, the authors conclude that Rhaeto-Romansh, despite a recent up tick in awareness of the language, faces a harder slog in the long term than DSGS.

The explanation of this analysis is what is especially interesting, however, and it is a point that comes up in several other essays in the book:
As [François] Grosjean (1992 [The bilingual and bicultural person in the hearing and deaf world]) has commented, there are important differences between those who are bilingual in oral languages and deaf people who are bilingual in signed language and spoken language. Future generations of those who are bilingual in spoken languages have good chance of becoming monolingual in the language most useful to them. In contrast, future generations of deaf signers will probably remain bilingual because they will continue to have a need in different spheres of their lives for both the economically important spoken language and the perceptually and fully accessible signed language.
The comparison that comes to mind are the group of Australian languages mentioned first chapter of Mark Abley's Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages -- Lardil, Marlda Kangka, and Damin.
The daily language used by most of these men was called Lardil. After puberty, boys were circumcised (without anesthetic, or course) and taught Marlda Kangka -- a sign language. ... After a year or more, young men who were brave enough moved on to the second stage of initiation: penile subincision. ... The reward for enduring the pain was a second auxiliary language, Damin.
Nowadays, Lardil is threatened and Marlda Kangka and Damin are extinct. Modern life has lead to the end of these rituals and the associated languages. Another example might be Abkhaz hunting language, which was only spoken by the nobility only while journeying through the forest and has since gone extinct. The situations that lead to the development of these languages have changed and thus the languages are allowed to atrophy and die. Deaf sign languages, however, have a situation (the Deaf community) for which their use remains ideal and therefore they are likely better withstand the assault of a majority language.

Of course, and this is a point several papers in Many Ways to Be Deaf make, as technological aids like cochlear implants become available and as people who have partial hearing are encouraged to use oral language instead of sign language, sign language and Deaf culture in general become threatened the same way other minority languages and cultures are threatened.

It seems inevitable in an increasingly globalized society that linguistic and cultural differences will become harmonized. There is more to be gained for an individual to speak the language of government and industry than a historic local language that may only be partially understood outside one's home valley. But -- and this is the point of Spoken Here and Helena Drysdale's Mother Tongues: Travels Through Tribal Europe -- there is a significant loss to all of us when these languages die. Specific terms for geography, weather, plants, animals, etc., are lost. Different ways of looking at the world become homogenized. Hopefully, efforts like the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages will at least slow the loss of minority languages and maybe even lead to the revival for some.

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