The Study Of Deaf People English Language Essay

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There are around 6.6 billion people living in the whole world and according to the World Federation of the Deaf 70 million people use sign language as their first language or mother tongue. Because of the great number of people that use sign language as they primary means of communication we have decided to initiate a research the topic of which is the study of deaf people and their language.

The purpose of the present research is to elucidate the peculiarities of sign language. Most of us believe that people with hearing disabilities from all over the world use a universal sign system to express their thoughts, ideas but it's just a stereotype and nothing else because different countries use different signs to denote one and the same word as for example:

For the reason that there are 196 countries in the world, it would be difficult for us to study how sign language differs from one country to another. That is why we narrowed down the area of our research and decided that we will study only the British sign language system and we will try to show how it differs or what common points it has with other sign systems. Another reason of drawing this limit apart from the one already mentioned is that one uses sign languages differently to a small child and to an adult the same happens in the spoken language where we use different vocabulary in an informal situation when we speak with our friends and in a formal situation when we go to a job interview.

In order to find the answers to all our questions we developed a plan that is reflected in the following objectives:

To define what a sign language is.

To determine whether it is a natural, artificial or mix language.

To show how it differs and what common points it has with sign languages from other countries.

To establish how and in what language deaf people think.

Since we are studying the sign language of adults that live in Great Britain and not in Moldova and because we lack the opportunity to apply a questionnaire or other interesting methods in order to provide credible data, we will base our study mostly on the theoretical material that is already available to us and on researches that were performed by linguists, sociolinguists etc. Among the material that we think to use in our research we could mention the following: Rachel Sutton-Spence, Bencie Woll The Linguistics of British Sign Language: An Introduction, Daven Hiskey and his article How deaf people think, the web page of the World Federation of the deaf, Perspectives on British Sign Language and Deafness by Bencie Woll, James Kyle, Margaret Deucha etc.

There are many reasons why we have chosen the sign language as the topic of our research the first and the most important one was the fact that many people considered sign language a pantomime or a simple gestural code when in reality linguistic researches had confirmed the fact that it is not just a pantomime but it's a real language. Another fact that arose our interest was to find out whether the sign language is a natural, artificial or mix language and what common or different points it shares with the spoken language, how it developed, if it has a structure and etc and finally for me as a beginning linguist sign language was a domain that I had never touched and never attempted to study.


Since, sign language has never been investigated in details by linguists as the spoken language was, we will to try to present a literary overview on the topic "The study of deaf people and their language "with the purpose to elucidate the peculiarities of sign language.

We will present a diachronic study of the sign language as we intend to find out when the sign language appeared and what its status is today. We also intend to answer at least some of the following questions: when sign language appeared for the first time, is it a natural, artificial or mix language, how it differs from the spoken language, is there an international sign language or each country has its own system of sign language we even ask ourselves if a country has a universal sign language or even each region has it's own sign language .To this and several more questions we will try to provide an answer.

To collect the information that we need we will analyze books and also web pages of ONG and other companies that work with deaf people communities in this way we will combine old information with recent investigations. Because there are 196 countries in the world and each country developed it s own sign language we narrowed down the area of our research to only one country and that is Great Britain .We will compare the sign language of deaf people from Great Britain with those from other countries in order to highlight the common points and differences that they share.

Definition of Sign language

"We live in world full of signs. Whatever our eyes take in is pervaded by signs, ranging from traffic signs to the constellation of stars in the night sky; from the silhouette of a mother's image in our dreams to the seven color bands of the rainbow. . . . Conceiving of a world without signs is impossible."

Kyong Liong Kim

We started this little chapter of our research with this beautiful quote of Kyong Liong Kim because is contains not only beautiful words it also stresses the importance of signs in our life, but most of all in the life of people that are suffering of deafness. When we have all that we dreamed about we often forget to enjoy the little things in our life such as friends, family, everything that surround us as for example the sun, the bird's songs, the rain etc. But when we lose one of our senses as for example the sight or the ability to speak then and only then we realized what we had and what we have lost. But there are people who find in themselves the strength to go further and to adapt and even to transform their weakness into their strong points.

As was mentioned in the quote the world is full of signs, so let's see what a sign is? According to Macmillan dictionary [11] a sign is " a movement or sound that you make that tells other people what you want, how you feel, what they should do". We also have consulted another dictionary Merriam -Webster dictionary [12] that gave us more or less the same definition of the term, according to it a sign is "a motion or gesture by which a thought is expressed or a command or wish made known ".In other words a sign is a way of non verbal communication used not only by deaf people but by everybody from a small baby to an adult.

Signs are not just a pantomime used by people to have fun or use them when they don't feel like talking but it is a language used by deaf people. In the attempt of defining what a sign language means we came across several definitions among which that of The Free Dictionary [13] who defines the sign language as "a language that uses a system of manual, facial, and other body movements as the means of communication, especially among deaf people ". We didn't want to give a definition that was written in a dictionary we wanted to see how people that deal every day with this problem define this term so we searched on the webpage were sign language is defined as "one method of communication for people who are deaf or hard of hearing in which hand movements, gestures and facial expressions convey grammatical structure and meaning ". Another definition that we came across is that of J.G .Kyle and B.Woll who defined sign language as "a movement of hands and space, of the hands and of the eyes….but most important of all, it is the language o deaf community" [3; 5]. We agree with all these definitions but with one thing got us puzzled and this is the combination words that we often came across while searching the definition of sign language and it is "way of communication of people who are deaf " .We know that deaf people fought for a long period of time to make sign language an official language , a language of their own but we would eliminate this combination from the definition of sign language as it feels as a discrimination , it feels like people that don't hear are pushed away but they are just ordinary people like us , and not just they use sign language to communicate ,we all do at a certain moment.


The first question that we asked ourselves when we started investigating the history of deaf people and their language was when the sign language appeared, who was the person who developed the sign language system and where it appeared and developed for the first time?

According to World Federation [9]of the Deaf the sign languages apparently have arisen spontaneously as a result of continuous and free interaction among people who used them as a primary means of communication and existed as long as the spoken language .In her article "A History of Sign Language" Broke Larson [4] also gives different variants of when and how sign language appeared but as well as the previous source she agrees that we can not know for sure were the sign language originated. Even though we are not able to say for sure when the sign appeared, there are some theories that can give us at least some idea. In her work Larson mentions some of the theories that are supposed to be true.

One of them refers more to the unofficial appearance of sign language .It says that the "beginnings "of sign language are traced prehistorically before Christ and during Renaissance. It goes even further , it claims that sign language appeared long before people start to speak and is even older than humankind .This theory is supported by proves provided by paleontologists that have suggested that the voice space of early humans would not accommodate the complex speech apparatus we now have . Since hominids were not able to communicate using their mouths , they used their hands to communicate among themselves .That is why for anthropologist this fact suggest that sign language appeared about hundred thousand years ago with the beginning of Homo erectus [4 ].

Even though we don't know exactly when sign language appeared for the first time, we can say when it became official and that is the 17th century in Spain [10] when Juan Pablo Bonet wrote and published Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos (Reduction of letters and art for teaching mute people to speak) and he was the one who developed an manual alphabet for people suffering from deafness.

Later taking as a base Bonet's alphabet, Charles-Michel de l'Épée developed the French Manuel Alphabet which is almost unchanged until today and in 1755 he founded the first public school for deaf children in Paris and starting with this year new and new schools appeared all over the world as for example the permanent school for the deaf was established in Hartford, Connecticut.

Natural, Artificial or Mix Language?

Many of us asked themselves the question if sign language is a natural, artificial or mix language? Daphne Bavelier, Elissa L. Newport, and Ted Supalla in their article "Children Need natural languages , Signed or Spoken " [1] assert that sign languages are a truly natural languages because they are acquired in the same way as the spoken one. According to them sign language has all the characteristics of the spoken language; it has morphology, phonology and syntax.

In the same article the authors specify that at a certain point sign language may be considered to be an artificial language. A natural language is the language that "a language that has evolved naturally as a means of communication among people "[13] and is opposed to the artificial which "is invented by specific individuals" [1] as for examples by teachers of deaf children. Artificially created sign systems are often destined to remain in the classroom as the children don't learn them willingly and they are not used in the everyday communication.

The answer to this question is to be discovered in the future but if we follow the logic and also according to the definitions sign language may be considered natural for those who are born deaf because as was mentioned above, they lean sign language as well as people that hear do .For those who are healthy and who don't have problems with their hearing, for them it may seem artificial and it may be considered mixed for those who were healthy but lost their hearing , for them it became from artificial to natural as it will be the only way in which they will communicate .So it depends from which position we analyze the problem.

British sign language and sign languages from other countries

Once again we convinced ourselves that we are learning our whole life and we realized that while investigating this topic. At first we thought what we can possibly learn about sign language that we don't know? It turned out that we don't know a lot of things as for example until recently we believed that there is one sign language for everybody. According to National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) [6] sign language is not universal and each country has its own sign system as for example British Sign Language is different from German Sign Language, Spanish Sign Language and even Irish Sign Language.

As it was stated at the beginning of the article the sign language is used by approximately 70 million people all over the world, and according to the article of Rachel Sutton-Spence [7] the number of people that use the BSL are around 250,000.

The British Sign Language or BSL is used all over UK and as well as the spoken language it has variations there are just about 30 regional dialects within UK [2] for example the BSL used in Belfast differs from the dialect used in Manchester. This means that people from different regions of UK use different signs to refer to the same word but it doesn't mean that one sign is good and the other is bad it is just slightly different.

But no one asked themselves the question how these dialects appear and why they didn't developed until recently. The answer at these two questions we found in the book of Rachel Sutton -Spence "The Linguistics of British Sign Language: An Introduction". The author of this book considers that once there were only one BSL which then split up because deaf people spread all over Great Britain and the reason why dialects appeared is that deaf people were quite isolated and communicated only with their neighbors .When there were a change in the dialect of one community, people outside this community didn't know about them this is the way in which dialect appeared [8; 29]

American Sign Language

Has its root in the 1800s, when an American schoolteacher, Thomas Gallaudet, went to Europe and brought back Laurent Clerk, a teacher of French Sign Language.

Together, they founded a school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817.

American Sign Language is closer to French Sign Language than to British Sign Language.

American Sign Language is the fourth most commonly spoken language in the United States.

French Sign Language

The first officially recognized sign language.

Created in 1752 , became official in 1830

French Sign Language, used in France and Togo, has 50,000 to 100,000 users.

Approximately 43% of American Sign Language is similar to French Sign Language.

British Sign Language

British Sign Language has been an official recognized form in the United Kingdom only since 2003.

Approximately 70,000 people use British Sign Language as a first language. British Sign Language varies by region, such as London or Manchester.

British Sign Language has little in common with sign languages of other English-speaking countries.

Japanese Sign Language

Related to Korean and Taiwanese Sign Languages

Used by 95 percent of the deaf community of Japan.

Japanese Sign Language is actually made of two languages: SimCom, short for "simultaneous communication," and Japanese Sign Language. SimCom is used for formal situations, such as business or performances, whereas Japanese Sign Language is used in everyday situations.

While many people know finger spelling, it is not commonly used.

The Sign language and the spoken language

For many people sign language differ from the spoken one but it is not true. According to The World Federation of the deaf sign language and the spoken one share some common characteristics but also are different:

Signed languages are visual-gestural languages, while spoken languages are auditory-vocal languages.

Deaf people use their hands to convey a message and use their eyes to perceive it while people who hear well use they mouth to enunciate the message and their ears to understand it and make sense out of it.

Sign language do not have linguistic roots

Forms of sign languages consist of sequences of movements and configurations of the hands and arms, face, and upper torso. The forms of spoken languages consist of sounds produced by sequences of movements and configurations of the mouth and vocal tract.

While in the spoken language, the sounds or the speech is produced by combining basic phonological units which are formed by the placement of the tongue in the mouth or the shape of the list lips, in the sign language the hands are the basic phonological units and to be more specific: hand shape, hand position with respect to the body, and hand movement.

As well as the spoken languages sign languages have a structure that can be further analyzed and divided into smaller segments: sentences, signs and even smaller units.

Both languages can be used to provide and share information, tell true stories or lies, express poems, tell jokes, discuss scientific and abstract matters as well as have a speech or a lecture. 

It is well known that information can be transmitted through various forms such as written, spoken, through signs or with the help of the eyes like the Indians do. It doesn't matter how we do it, what a matter is the message that the person wants to transmit. Most of us think that the most efficient way to make a person listen to what you want to say is by vocalizing the message through words but it is not true often people learn and get more information from our behavior, posture, gestures and that is what we call non verbal communication and sign language is one form of non verbal communication.

As well as in the spoken language , dialects exist in the sign language

Sign language is not universal, each country has its own sign system and even on the territory of one country the sign language may differ from one community to another because the number of deaf people is not big and each community develop their sign language which may not be understood by deaf people from other regions of the same country .We cannot say sign language of which community is better because they might have the same roots but with the time they adopted to the needs of those people who use them