With the obvious exceptions of conditions like Parkinson’s, paralysis and double hand amputation, I’ve been trying to figure out why American sign language isn’t promoted as a legitimate universal language.
Let me get a few things out of the way right off the bat. First, I say American sign language because as far as I know it’s the most comprehensive of any signing. It’s not because of some nationalistic pride. If there are other forms of sign that are as well developed, I’d like to learn of them. Second, as I mentioned in the opening paragraph this isn’t a perfect setup. There are millions world wide that can’t physically sign. However, there are millions that are deaf and/or mute making spoken language impossible. Granted, deaf persons can learn to read lips, but what if the person is also blind?
Finally, if you’re deaf, mute and blind none of these options (sign, speech and lip-reading) will apply. Again, my idea isn’t a perfect argument.
Given all that, I just can’t figure out why sign isn’t promoted as a universal language.
Here are some arguments for that thinking.
Languages have very unique speech patterns, pronunciation, sounds and structure. In sign you have one movement or hand position to relay a word, phrase, idea or concept. For instance, it is said the Eskimos have dozens of different words for snow. Each describes whether it’s light, heavy, wet, dry, blowing, drifting, etc. And that’s just one language. (Or family of languages, not clear on that.) Think of all th other languages in the world. Each has a different word for snow and additional adjectives to describe the kind of snow.
With sign, you can not only say snow, but describe it as well. In a way that everyone will know without translation.
In addition, the obstacles of learning new sounds is eliminated. Think of the “L” sound in some Asian languages. It can be learned, obviously, but it can be difficult to do so when learning to say these sounds after, say, 30 years of never saying it. I forget the name of the language in Africa that uses tongue clicks in speech and just can’t imagine ever learning how to do it.
With sign, that is eliminated. There is no mispronunciation. The hand gesture is absolute and clearly recognized as exactly what the signer intended to convey. To offer a crass example, think of giving someone “The Bird”. It’s not universal, yet, but it’s a pretty good bet that a lot of people from any culture will know what it means. Sure, a lot of languages have a direct equivalent to “Fuck you”, but many more have phrases that equate to “You are a flea-bitten dog” or “Your parents were never married”. In Western culture the latter is equivalent to calling someone a bastard, kinda tame compared to a hearty Fuck You. But in other cultures (namley Islamic I think) being called a bastard is tantamount to raping your mother. Extending the middle finger rolls all those ideas/emotions into one easily recognizable gesture that makes clear what you want to express to someone.
Now, I don’t offer sign as a universal language so we can easily insult each other. It’s just the easiest, most basic way I can describe how well sign could work as a language that can be learned by the vast majority of the world.
Instead of an American learning French, German, Spanish and Japanese, or a Russian learning Chinese (whatever flavor you want), Portugese and Arabic, there is one language that requires only rote learning of the motions and very basic sentence structure. No more learing how to pronounce a letter that has “decoration”. (Tildes, the slash through a Norwegian O, the stylized B in German to indicate the double “S” sound, etc.)
The other problem I can see is that sign is visual. But that can be offset by the ever increasing spread of video communication through the internet. Instead of an e-mail or hand written letter, you would use video capture to record your signing to send to your audience.
Also, and here’s the biggest obstacle IMO. There is a greatly lessened use of inflection and tone in sign. There is lessened emotion than in speech. But sign has more of both than the written word, and the written word is still pretty powerful. I’m not looking at this from the standpoint of signing to your spouse that you love them. This is more for business or low level diplomacy. Granted, if you’re negotiating a multi-billion dollar business merger or attempting to stave off a war, you want the personal interaction of talking to someone. But that’s not the norm of international communication. Just think how much easier it would be to use a gesture to locate a hospital, barber, grocery store, etc in a foreign land.
So where are the flaws and holes in my argument that sign should be persued as a universal language? I’ve mentioned the ones I can think of, but none seem serious enough to halt it.
What are your thoughts?