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Let's talk (or sign) about sign language

Using hand gestures and body language is one of the oldest and most basic forms of communication. You use signs when you wave hello or point to something you want, and you use body language to emphasize an idea. But once we want to deepen the conversation, we head over to spoken language. However, it is not an option open to everyone. People with hearing loss and those who have difficulty hearing are often unable to learn the spoken language at all. Instead, they use Sign Language, a visually perceptible natural language, as a means of communication. It is a natural language that has, in fact, the same linguistic properties as spoken languages. 

Sign Language is expressed by a combination of gestures, facial expressions, and posture. It has its own vocabulary and a specific grammatical system that differs from spoken languages. For example, individual gestures can have different meanings that can only be understood through the context or the facial expressions of the speaker. A simple sentence like "Could you give me the bottle?" would read something like this: "You - bottle - give - me." The gesture for "I" alone, a gesture with the index finger on your chest, can adopt different meanings, depending on the circumstances. This makes Sign Language a form of communication that is strongly tied to the situation.

Is sign language the same in every country?

Well, yes and no. There is no official universal Sign Language. Every country and region has its own Sign Language with different vocabulary in the respective national form and also its own grammar and syntax. Due to the natural growth of every Sign Language, there are regional accents and dialects. But there are also sociological factors like age and culture that can affect the usage of Sign Language and contribute to its variety, just as with spoken language. For example, British Sign Language (BSL) is different from American Sign Language (ASL), and Americans who know ASL may not understand BSL. 

However, there is something called "International Sign Language" (ISL). ISL is, in fact, a language system, instead of a naturally developed language. This type of communication initially originated in the 1960s and 1970s and is used at larger events and congresses. ILS ensured at least rudimentary access to the topics and content to those who could not rely on the language interpreters of their own country.

How does Sign Language compare with spoken language?

Sign Language contains all the fundamental features of a spoken language, but with its own rules for pronunciation, word formation, and word order. For example, English speakers may ask a question by raising the pitch of their voices and adjusting the word order. Users of Sign Language ask a question by raising their eyebrows, widening their eyes, and tilting their bodies forward.

What is the Finger Alphabet?

ALS Finger Alphabet

The finger alphabet complements the sign language and is used to spell words. Each letter or character of the written alphabet corresponds to a distinct handshape. These characters are used, for example, to spell names or terms for which there is no sign (yet). 

Spelling the name every time, however, is quite arduous and might inhibit the conversation. Therefore, sooner or later, the person with hearing loss will give you a name gesture (or you can choose one yourself). This gesture should stand for personal characteristics, like hints of physical features, hairstyles, or hobbies. 

How do you communicate with people with hearing loss if you're not familiar with Sign Language?

People with hearing loss can usually also communicate directly with hearing people. The assumption that they can understand all the content of a conversation through lip-reading is fundamentally wrong, however. Scientific studies show that only a maximum of 30% is actually read and understood. People with hearing loss have to work out the rest of the content by themselves. It is inherent that misunderstandings can sometimes lead to severe communication difficulties.

Worst-case scenario, you stick to pen and paper, or, in the age of modern technology, write the message on your phone and show it to the other person. 

How do you learn Sign Language?

Acquiring a Sign Language is comparable to learning a spoken language.

For children, parents are often the source of a child's early language acquisition. However, for a child with hearing loss that has hearing parents who have no prior experience with Sign Language, it may be acquired differently through deaf peers or teachers of Sign Language. As an adult, learning Sign Language depends on prior language skills and the time and personal commitment of the learner. You can find training courses for language enthusiasts and interpreters at various language institutions and universities.

Every language opens the door to a new world. Hardly any other foreign language is as easy to learn and as fascinating as Sign Language. It is beautiful, elegant, full of poetry, appeals to many senses at the same time, and definitely is worth learning!

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