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Common Myths About Sign Language

Carola has worked for agencies serving the hearing loss community for many years. She is also a freelance writer.

There is a growing fascination with sign language among the general public and people are signing up for sign language classes in record numbers. Popular TV shows prominently feature deaf actors and aspects of deaf culture. Despite this, myths about sign language persist, and many people have misconceptions about sign.

Elements of Sign Language

In the book Signing: How To Speak With Your Hands, author Elaine Costello calls signing a language that is "rich with nuance, emotion, and grace." Sign language is the natural language of many deaf people. Manual communication uses various components to express thoughts and ideas such as:

  • head nods or shakes
  • hand shapes
  • movement
  • modulation (i.e. adding emphasis by signing bigger or with more intensity, changing body position)
  • facial expression (i.e. expressing anger or sarcasm)
  • mouth and tongue shapes (i.e. an open mouth with the tongue out is added to signs like "stupid," or "foolish," or lips pressed together to indicate an activity continued such as driving to a location)
  • palm orientation
  • location

Common Misconceptions About Sign Language

Myth: All Deaf People Sign

Approximately 10 percent of deaf people communicate in sign language. There are many reasons why deaf people learn to sign. They may have been born deaf, have deaf parents, or have attended schools for the deaf or bilingual sign language/English programs.

Many deaf people choose not to sign for a variety of reasons. For example, some people lost their hearing after learning spoken language through causes such as illness or trauma. They may prefer to speak and lipread. They may choose to use a cochlear implant, a surgically implanted device that simulates hearing. They may require notetakers, captioning, or real-time transcription in school or at work.

In the past, doctors and educators discouraged or forbade the use of sign language. Currently, many professionals still believe that learning to sign impairs Some organizations such as A.G. Bell promote a completely oral approach to teaching deaf children to communicate.

Myth: Sign Language is Only Based on Handshapes

Now and then, software engineers will announce technology such as gloves for signers that interpret hand movements into English. News headlines will proclaim the devices as an effective way to translate signing into spoken language.

In reality, hand movement is only one part of manual communication. Facial expression and body placement also provide vital information. In American Sign Language For Dummies, authors Penilla II, Adan R., Taylor, and Angela Lee explain sign language as a complex system that combines hand and body movements, and facial expressions to express ideas.

For example, a person signs, “That was a wonderful meal.” A facial expression can add pleasure, sarcasm, or disgust. Our verbal cues such as puffed cheeks or pursed lips also show something large or small and signal size or intensity.

Myth: Sign Is Iconic

Some signs seem to be iconic—that is, form pictures, such as the signs for combing hair or brushing teeth. Signs are based on concepts and ideas. Some incorporate iconic elements, while others are more an expression of ideas such as emotional states. Sign language uses the body in unusual ways to express ideas. For example, American Sign Language uses the body to indicate a timeline. Signs showing the past move behind the body, indicating the present by being close to the body, and move forward to show the future.

If signers are demonstrating a conversation they had with someone, they tilt their bodies slightly to the right or to the left to indicate who is speaking. Signers can also use certain handshapes to represent people, objects, or vehicles and move them to demonstrate things such as seating patterns, walking, or a car accident.

Myth: Sign Is Universal

Sign language is not universal. Many regions and countries have their own sign language. There are at least 70 signed languages in the world. American Sign Language is used primarily in the United States and in English-speaking Canada (French-speaking Canadians have their own sign language, Langue des Signes Québécoise). Countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia have their own distinct sign languages and fingerspelling systems.

There is an international form of sign language, but it is mainly used to help deaf people communicate at international events or to communicate information to a global deaf audience over the Internet. This language is not in common usage.

The "v" handshapes go in small circles to form the sign for "victory"

The "v" handshapes go in small circles to form the sign for "victory"

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Myth: Sign Is a Visual Form of Spoken and Written Language

Sign language is a distinct language with its own grammar and syntax. It is not a subset of English. Sign language evolved naturally in the deaf community and became formalized with the help of certain leaders and deaf teachers in schools for the deaf such as Laurent Clerc. Signs are not always expressed in the same order as English words because of the visual and directional nature of the language.

Native spoken language can influence manual language. For example, handshapes based on the English alphabet can be used to fingerspell words when signs may not exist, such as for proper names. Deaf people will create signs when needed as the world continues to change and evolve. English may influence the formation of some signs such as using the handshape for “v” with movement to form the sign for the concept “victory."

Deaf people will assign hearing people a sign name if they do not have one. Name signs are often based on characteristics such as wavy hair or a personality trait such as smiling a lot.

Myth: Hearing People With Basic Sign Language Can Be Interpreters

The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) states that sign language interpreting is a highly specialized skill that requires training and an understanding of the RID code of ethics. Like other languages, fluency in sign language takes several years of study. Many colleges and universities offer full-time sign language interpreter training courses.

A basic knowledge of sign does not qualify a hearing person to be an interpreter. Signers need to have a thorough knowledge of sign language grammar and syntax and an extensive vocabulary. Interpreters use highly specialized techniques to communicate and follow a strict code of ethics. There are situations where volunteer interpreting is acceptable, such as in religious or social settings. In these cases, the interpreter is selected or accepted by the deaf person.

Myth: If Deaf Children Are Taught to Sign, They Will Not Learn to Speak

The National Association of the Deaf has recognized sign language as the natural language of the culturally deaf. Research has shown that knowing sign language enhances the ability of deaf children to learn to speak English. It gives deaf children a linguistic base from which they can learn spoken language as a second language.

Some educators and medical professionals claim that deaf children will be confused if they learn to sign while being taught spoken and written language. Research by Gallaudet University and others reveal that the opposite is true. Children whose first language is sign have higher levels of English. Studies have also shown that children of deaf parents who sign perform better academically than deaf kids who do not.

Concluding Thoughts

Sign is a legitimate, full language in itself with its own grammar and syntax with unique ways of expressing ideas, things, and concepts.

References:

American Sign Language, a teachers resource text on grammar and culture, Charlotte Baker, Dennis Cokely
Hearing Loss in Children, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Common Myths about American Sign Language, Silent Voice
A.G. Bell (Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing)
3 Misconceptions About Sign Language, Bay Area Audiology
Myths & Facts: Acquisition of American Sign Language & English, eparent.com, J. Freeman King
Real languages in the hand: myths and facts about sign languages, ESPC International Centre for Language and Communicative Development (UK)

© 2013 Carola Finch

Comments

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on May 01, 2015:

Carola, great hub on sign language myths. Congrats on Editor's Choice. This was an intriguing hub about the hearing impaired. Voted up!

Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on May 28, 2013:

Thanks for your comments.

Karen Fritzemeier on May 28, 2013:

I did not know that there were more than 70 sign languages! That was a fascinating fact, and several of these items were new to me. Thank you for an informative hub.

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