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Is deaf sign language 'international'?


simon43

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Not sure which forum to post this in - mods please move if you see fit.

 

Many of us know about the community of Thai deaf street-sellers who operate their businesses on Sukhumvit - they rapidly converse with each other using sign language.

 

But staying in BKK for a couple of weeks, I pass these deaf people several times every day.  I see them using sign language to communicate with each other.  But I have also seen them using sign language to communicate with deaf people who are not Thai, such as Chinese, 'westerners' and Arabs.

 

That got me thinking about deaf sign language a bit more.  I always thought that deaf sign language was not a universal language.  for example, someone who uses ASL (American Sign Language) would generally be unable to communicate with someone who uses BSL (British Sign Language) or TSL (Thai sign language).

 

Clearly, the signing that they are not doing is not letter-writing (writing letters using their hands), because that would definitely require knowledge of each spoken language to communicate.

 

The reason why I want to understand this is because I teach in Myanmar, and Dr Google tells me that sign language exists amongst the deaf communities in Yangon and Mandalay. I want to know if signing by deaf people (or hearing teachers), is a universal language, with perhaps only some minor regional or localised signs. If so, then if I learnt a sign language, I should be able to communicate with these deaf communities.  (Wiki says that the Japanese Deaf Association is assisting the Myanmar deaf communities to introduce a standardised sign language - I have emailed that association and wait their reply).

 

Any information or relevant web links are appreciated :)

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No one form of sign language is universal. Different sign languages are used in different countries or regions. For example, BritishSign Language (BSL) is a different languagefrom ASL, and Americans who know ASL may not understand BSL.

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Many moons ago - when I was a student nurse we had a lecture from the Deaf society and we were told that sign language was universal bot so the deaf-blind language.

 

So it was interesting to see the OP question and Jeabs response.

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Signing grew up independently within deaf communities across the globe, so one wouldn't expect it to be universal, and would expect it to be influenced by the written language of the region.  For the British and American sign languages, despite both being influenced by English, only around 2/5ths of the signs are similar.  Because of an historical quirk ASL is closer to French signing than British.

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My late wife was deaf and signed as did I on our travels around the world. There was only two places I can remember where signing was almost the same as BSL Australia and Malta. The rest although different in many cases she could just about make herself understood to a point. Sounds horrible but I had to laugh sometimes she used to get herself super annoyed when she could get over to other deaf people what she wanted to say bless her

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Hi Simon43, I am BSL native and living in Thailand as expat. Your article is appreciated because everything what you said is generally right. In the short words, there are many different perspective views whether or not Sign language is universal. If you can grasp the signing principle (i.e. expression, movement, space & attention), then you will understand better. Each country has its own sign language corresponding to its national vocabulary only - not grammar. It is true that Deaf Thai vendors can communicate the Westerners/Arab/Chinese through their "common sense".

 

If you teach any deaf children or adults in Myanmar, I would strongly recommend you grasping the basic signing principle before you visit them. It will make a big difference and they will admire your effort in signing (I have no knowledge about Myanmar but I hope the teachers are allowing them to use sign language like in Thailand). My Skype tutorial for introducing British Sign Language (BSL) for English speakers or "International" Sign Language for non-English speakers is available. 1 trial lesson then 1 package of 10 lessons (45 mins to 1 hour each)  See www.italki.com. 

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Sign language is quite an interesting phenomenon.  American Sign Language, and probably the others as well, has both puns and rhyming.  For instance, in ASL a gesture of drilling your index finger into you temple is a way of calling someone "boring."  There is a very interesting story of the development of sign language in Nicaragua after the Sandinista Revolution when the government undertook to provide an organized education for deaf children for the first time.  The government devised a rudimentary Nicaraguan Sign Language which it taught to the kids now studying together in deaf classes.  However, the kids quickly developed the language far beyond its basic beginnings to a point that the deaf teachers had a hard time keeping up.  The general point is that children devise languages, not adults, for the most part, including deaf kids. 

 

One would expect that Burmese Sign Language, to the extent that it is formalized, is based on the Burmese language.

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49 minutes ago, CaptHaddock said:

The general point is that children devise languages, not adults, for the most part, including deaf kids. 

 

Really? I'm not sure that explains the large number of borrowed Sanskrit and Pali words in Thai, or of French in English.

 

Of course, children give new meanings to existing words, such as "sick" , "bad" and "wicked", but that's a minor (but interesting) phenomenon, tinkering at the fringes of language.  In the case of the Nicaraguans, there had been no deaf community pre-1970s, and no native sign language had evolved.  When ISL was introduced it was rudimentary and not able to express everything people wanted to say.  I posit that is why the language evolved so rapidly.  Had ASL been introduced, there wouldn't have been any rapid evolution since ASL is much more complete than ISL was.

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I can relate to Nicaraguan story and the kids developing it.  I used to know two old ladies, old 50 years ago, who were sisters and they taught themselves Spanish as childen from books so they could have a secret language between just them.  But all their pronunciation was wrong so they could not speak to Spanish people.  They effectively created a private language in mispronounced Spanish.  Get and read Bill Bryson's book "Mother Tongue" if you really want to understand how all languages evolve.    I used to have a job placing disabled people and I worked with the deaf.  A lot of  words are intuitive and obvious, probably almost international but most are not.  Job or work in BSL is one fist punching on top of another.  House or residence is "tented" fingertips.  I could (and still can) say "I will look around for a job for you" in BSL.   I guess that many words are like that so a foreign person would get a frustratingly few words (say off Thai TV news, but not enough to know what was actualy being said.

Edited by The Deerhunter
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48 minutes ago, Oxx said:

Really? I'm not sure that explains the large number of borrowed Sanskrit and Pali words in Thai, or of French in English.

Agree that the basics of any language evolve slowly and often  carry with them much that is borrowed from other languages. It may seem that young people speak their own language and that some of that becomes part of the mainstream, especially these days with so much social media permeating our lives along with TV and movies, but the evolution of language is only partly influenced by young people.  The sciences, technology, fashion, cuisine and the greater interaction between cultures as well as increased migration of people greatly influence the development of language. Think of all the now common words and expressions that reference computers and the Internet that would be totally unrecognizable to anyone living just a few decades ago.

 

On the other hand, looking at a passage from one of the first major works written in English by Chaucer illustrates how even the basics do definitely evolve markedly.

 

Quote

1: Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
2: The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
3: And bathed every veyne in swich licour
4: Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5: Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
6: Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
7: Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

 

Translation to modern English here:  https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/CT-prolog-para.html

 

 

 

 

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Anyways this has got me thinking as I can sign very well in BSL. I will look at expanding that to try to include the Thai signing will have to trawl the Web and ask at local university there must be a course somewhere in or around KK. Exellent topic @simon43

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Thanks very much for all the interesting replies.  

 

Quote

 

 


im ozzie ,been profoundly deaf for 30 years. 

in ozz we use aslan . dosnt come close to anything else iv seen . 
 

 

 

LoL, well no-one can understand hearing speakers from Oz when they speak either :)

 

Seriously, I did some more Googling on this topic, and certainly it seems that many sign languages are completely different, in which case, I assume that the Arab/Thai/Western signers that I saw on Sukhumvit Road are communicating through 'common' words and gestures (one doesn't have to know deaf sign-language to be able to communicate using signs - I use a lot of common-sense signs when teaching the youngest children in Myanmar).

 

I found a couple of interesting websites:

 

http://spreadthesign.com/

 

This website has video clips of different words/phrases in several different sign languages.  If you pick a random word from their dictionary and then look at a few videos for that word, in many cases the signs used are very different.

 

http://www.sematos.eu/

 

This website provides video clips using 'International Sign Language (ISL)'.  I'd appreciate if those forum members who know deaf sign language can comment about how 'international'  ISL really is.

 

Finally, back to Myanmar deaf students.  The wiki article mentions that there are only a couple of deaf schools - in Yangon and Mandalay, and these schools use different sign languages..... The Japanese Deaf Association has been assisting to try to standardise the sign language that is used in Myanmar.

 

My interest in all this stems from my role as a phonics teacher of pre-school, KG and lower primary students in Myanmar.  A number of my students have Special Educational Needs (SEN) - I am a certified SEN teacher.  To try to help those students who have problems articulating, I'm just completing a speech therapy course so that I can understand the 'mechanics' of speaking and pronunciation.  So the next logical step is to then use my knowledge and teaching skills to help the deaf community in Myanmar :)

 

Update:



But all their pronunciation was wrong so they could not speak to Spanish people. 

 

LoL, sounds like the 'English' that many Thai teachers speak, (having learnt English from a Thai teacher who learnt it from their Thai teacher who learnt it etc etc).

 

It is not an English that I understand :)

 

 

Edited by simon43
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We have a deaf school near to where we live in Chonburi and  it's common to see many of the deaf people and their teachers/carers in a nearby local market.

 

My daughter and son in law learnt Makaton in the UK to be able to communicate with disabled foster children they might have in their care. Makaton is (supposed to be) a more universal form of sign language that's designed to help people with various disabilities (not just deafness) that prevents normal communication, to enable them to communicate with sign language with people, both at home and from other countries. So, while they were over here on holiday, my daughter and son in law were eager to see if the Thai deaf children understood it. They didn't. Apparently, although advertised as a universal sign language, it's not taught here at all.

 

I also met two English students in the same market, with the Thai deaf students, recently who were on a one year work program at the school for the deaf. They confirmed that British sign language was very different from Thai sign language.

 

For those who have young (grand)children in the UK who watch a children's TV program called Mr Tumble (Something Special) he uses Makaton throughout his program to help to communicate with the disabled children he has on the program.

Edited by sumrit
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1 hour ago, alocacoc said:

I wonder how many of deaf people did learn to read lips. May be this depends also from country to country. I tried once to say something to a deaf women. But she wasn't able to read my lips.

that is mostly how iv got by in the last 30 years.

its better than signing ,and very easy to pick up .

but not all people are easy to read.

when you lip read you also learn to pick up on body languege,  its not just dependant on lips alone . 

and there are many other factors involved , such as acents ,wich can play havoc.

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All good answers. The reason you see the Thai deaf people sometimes communicating with others is sign language is that ASL (American Sign Language) is often used/understood in other countries for a number of reasons (size and level of education and traveling of American deaf people, for instance) so they have often been exposed in the past. TSL (Thai Sign Language) is actually based on ASL and they can understand it although it's sometimes hard for Americans to understand TSL (for reasons including the use of finger spelling using the English alphabet is not used, of course, in TSL).

 

Two teachers of the deaf traveled to the US in the early 1950s and brought ASL back to Thailand, where it was adapted and altered to accommodate Thai customs and culture. Good question!

PS -- I am not sure that Myanmar deaf can understand ASL or TSL as much as other countries. It really depends on the level of education they were given in Myanmar growing up. I do not know about that at all and as one poster stated, if they speak British Sign Language they likely will not understand ASL/TSL as BSL is VERY different, having NOT been based on the original Sign Language from France.

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PPS -- About lip reading: of course it must be done in each native tongue and can not possibly be universal.

 

ALL sign languages are not only signs and finger spelling but is expressions of the whole body. For instance in American Sign Language, a yes/no question is asked with signs AND by raised eyebrows. NO or a negative response, besides something shaking the head back and forth, is accmpanied by a furrowed brow. This body and facial expression are taught to those studying sign lanuges, too.

 

BTW, there is a "universal" sign language under development, spearheaded, I think, by the deaf University on Washington, DC, Gallaudet. But I do not think it was been rolled out yet nor universallly accepted.

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On 4/24/2017 at 11:24 AM, Oxx said:

 

Really? I'm not sure that explains the large number of borrowed Sanskrit and Pali words in Thai, or of French in English.

 

Of course, children give new meanings to existing words, such as "sick" , "bad" and "wicked", but that's a minor (but interesting) phenomenon, tinkering at the fringes of language.  In the case of the Nicaraguans, there had been no deaf community pre-1970s, and no native sign language had evolved.  When ISL was introduced it was rudimentary and not able to express everything people wanted to say.  I posit that is why the language evolved so rapidly.  Had ASL been introduced, there wouldn't have been any rapid evolution since ASL is much more complete than ISL was.

1.  Do you really construe "children devise languages" to mean "children account for all changes to language?" 

 

2.  Yes, the original sign language provided by the Nicaraguan government was rudimentary, lacking the full range of expression in Nicaraguan Spanish.  My point is that the further development  of the language was due to the kids, not the adults, who were left behind.  The language did not evolve itself as your statement suggests.

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My point is that the further development  of the language was due to the kids, not the adults, who were left behind.

 

Perhaps similar to how the range of SMS 'text-slang' and abbreviations has been expanded by teens, so that their parents are not aware of what they are chatting about.

 

https://www.thesun.co.uk/living/2564278/would-you-recognise-the-secret-sexting-codes-your-kids-are-using/

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1 hour ago, CaptHaddock said:

Do you really construe "children devise languages" to mean "children account for all changes to language?" 

 

I think you've forgotten what you originally wrote, and to quote "The general point is that children devise languages, not adults, for the most part", which is, of course utter tosh.  Under normal circumstances children have a very minor role in the development of language.

 

And nothing I've written suggests "children account for all changes to language" .

 

Grovelling apology for your misrepresentation awaited.

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32 minutes ago, Oxx said:

 

I think you've forgotten what you originally wrote, and to quote "The general point is that children devise languages, not adults, for the most part", which is, of course utter tosh.  Under normal circumstances children have a very minor role in the development of language.

 

And nothing I've written suggests "children account for all changes to language" .

 

Grovelling apology for your misrepresentation awaited.

 

Perhaps the theory that children create language is "utter tosh," but if so, that tosh is endorsed by scientists like Robert Sapolsky at Stanford and Stephen Pinker at Harvard whose book, "The Language Instinct," cites how children will spontaneously develop a grammar-consistent creole when growing up in a mixed culture.  Here's a link to a lecture from Sapolsky's Stanford course on human behavioral biology.  Perhaps your listening skills are a bit better than your reading ability.

 

 

 

 

 

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30 minutes ago, CaptHaddock said:

 

Perhaps the theory that children create language is "utter tosh," but if so, that tosh is endorsed by scientists like Robert Sapolsky at Stanford and Stephen Pinker at Harvard whose book, "The Language Instinct," cites how children will spontaneously develop a grammar-consistent creole when growing up in a mixed culture.  Here's a link to a lecture from Sapolsky's Stanford course on human behavioral biology.  Perhaps your listening skills are a bit better than your reading ability.

 

 

 

 

 

pity it dosnt have sub-titles.

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59 minutes ago, CaptHaddock said:
1 hour ago, Oxx said:

 

I think you've forgotten what you originally wrote, and to quote "The general point is that children devise languages, not adults, for the most part", which is, of course utter tosh.  Under normal circumstances children have a very minor role in the development of language.

 

And nothing I've written suggests "children account for all changes to language" .

 

Grovelling apology for your misrepresentation awaited.

 

Perhaps the theory that children create language is "utter tosh," but if so, that tosh is endorsed by scientists like Robert Sapolsky at Stanford and Stephen Pinker at Harvard whose book, "The Language Instinct," cites how children will spontaneously develop a grammar-consistent creole when growing up in a mixed culture.  Here's a link to a lecture from Sapolsky's Stanford course on human behavioral biology.  Perhaps your listening skills are a bit better than your reading ability.

 

My listening and reading skills are just fine, thank you.

 

Perhaps you could explain why you believe the preponderance of language innovation comes from children, not adults? After all, you did write "The general point is that children devise languages, not adults, for the most part" - a viewpoint which appears to be utterly unsustainable based upon available evidence.  Children developing personal creoles is a mere sideshow in the evolution of language.

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On 4/24/2017 at 9:51 AM, sirmud63 said:

in short , no .  

im ozzie ,been profoundly deaf for 30 years. 

in ozz we use aslan . dosnt come close to anything else iv seen . 

 

I had a deaf brother in law in oz and learnt some Aslan, I only found out recently that Thai sign is different when I tried to have a conversation with a deaf Thai Girl.

I remember that there was even a level of local dialects in Australia, the brother in law would have deaf friends visit from other states and have some differences.

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On 4/24/2017 at 4:23 AM, CaptHaddock said:

Sign language is quite an interesting phenomenon.  American Sign Language, and probably the others as well, has both puns and rhyming.  For instance, in ASL a gesture of drilling your index finger into you temple is a way of calling someone "boring."  There is a very interesting story of the development of sign language in Nicaragua after the Sandinista Revolution when the government undertook to provide an organized education for deaf children for the first time.  The government devised a rudimentary Nicaraguan Sign Language which it taught to the kids now studying together in deaf classes.  However, the kids quickly developed the language far beyond its basic beginnings to a point that the deaf teachers had a hard time keeping up.  The general point is that children devise languages, not adults, for the most part, including deaf kids. 

 

One would expect that Burmese Sign Language, to the extent that it is formalized, is based on the Burmese language.

I'd go with that,

I have 5 sprogs, two boys and three girls and when they were growing up in these days of www, social media, mobile texting (sms) etc the odd time I tried to read some of the what to me was garbled lines, symbols and their generations shorthand - didn't make much sense yet all my five knew exactly what was being said - inferred to. So kids do adapt to whatever tools they have and language they use then quickly expand it

 

Interesting discussion 

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13 hours ago, Oxx said:

 

My listening and reading skills are just fine, thank you.

 

Perhaps you could explain why you believe the preponderance of language innovation comes from children, not adults? After all, you did write "The general point is that children devise languages, not adults, for the most part" - a viewpoint which appears to be utterly unsustainable based upon available evidence.  Children developing personal creoles is a mere sideshow in the evolution of language.

When I say that "children devise languages" I am not saying that children are responsible for all changes to language such as the influx of loan words, phonemic shifts, etc. 

 

In the observable cases where new languages have been created it has been children who created them, not adults.  The available examples are the creoles created spontaneosly by children in mixed culture environments cited by Stephen Pinker, the development of the limited sign language to the level of a real natural language by deaf Nicaraguan children, and unusual stories of siblings or other pairs of socially isolated children who devise their own private language, such as the case dramatised in the film, "Potto and Cabengo."

 

A possible counter example might be Esperanto, which was devised by adults, but that seems more an artificial than a natural language to me.  More like Fortran, for example. 

 

Nor am I claiming that children are necessarily responsible for the 6,000 languages now extant in the world.  That is a different question.

 

The notion that it is children who devise new languages, an idea which you apparently dismiss out of hand, simply because you have never heard of it before, is consistent with what we already know about the exceptional nature of language acquisition skills in children, i.e. the ability to learn a new language rapidly, without instruction, and without an accent which begins to disappear at about age twelve.  It doesn't seem a big leap to interpret the evidence above to indicate that the exceptional language abilities of children extend beyond language acquisition to language creation.  The fact that scientists of the caliber of Sapolsky and Pinker do make that leap does mean that it is correct, but does imply that it deserves serious consideration.

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