Friday, February 26, 2010

Sign Language

The first records of sign language date back to the early 17th century. In 1620, Spanish priest Juan Pablo Bonet published Reduction of Letter and Art for Teaching Mute People to Speak (Boy that’s a mouthful), the first alphabet for the deaf. From his work, philanthropic educator Charles-Michel de I’Epee published his alphabet a century later which has been left largely unchanged since.

Charles-Michel de I’Epee

Did you know?- Just like scientists have a universal system of measurement, the metric system, deaf people have a similar network. Known as International Sign, it is used at the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) as well as the Deaflympics, Olympics held strictly for those of hard hearing where participants compete in many of the same games.

Although widely viewed as being more limited that oral languages, sign language has the advantage of communicating through sight; not only through techniques like facial expressions and body movement but much more. Think of it like this…oral language is linear. What I mean by that is when speaking; only one sound can be made or heard at a time. On the other hand, sign language is visual, meaning a whole scene can be taken in at once. Here’s an example:

Let’s take a look at the phrase, “I went to the park.” Spoken, he/she would need to make the phrase longer to give additional information, such as, “I went to the park while it was sunny. It was beautiful.” In American Sign Language (ASL), details about the day and your feelings about it can be conveyed through with the verb ‘went’ by performing simultaneous gestures like specific hand movements, body posture, and facial expression. I other words, the deaf can shorten the new two word phrase back into its original format, “I went to the park.”

Sign language has five elements. They are:

Handshape (handform)
Orientation (palm orientation)
Location (place of articulation)
Expression (facial expression)

Together they form the acronym HOLME which has become easy to remember when learning the language. If you’re interested in learning sign for whatever reason (So you and your friend have a secret language, or you can insult people without their knowing) watch the video below to see if you can master the numbers 1-20 as well as the English alphabet.

If you still think you would like to learn sign, visit While there are countless other software programs to download online to learn ASL, this site is the best compilation of free lessons and tutorials that I could find.

Did you know?- In terms of sentence construction, ASL shares more with spoken Japanese than it does with English.

Yet whether you make a conscious choice to learn sign or not, you may find the language becoming more main stream in popular culture. Recently, there has been a movement to teach and encourage the use of sign language with toddlers before they learn to talk because young children can communicate effectively with signed languages before they are physically capable of speech. There have also been several breeds of primate such as the chimpanzee and gorilla that scientists have taught basic signs to in our hope to communicate with them. Below is part 1 of the 8 part series 1978 documentary, Koko: A Talking Gorilla, which showcases the abilities of a wonderful gorilla by the name of Koko who knows more than 1,000 signs of ASL as well as 2,000 spoken English words.

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