Is sign language universal or is it different in different languages?
It’s different. Though it doesn’t necessarily line up with spoken languages, for example ASL and BSL are different. American Sign Language, and British Sign Language.
There are different sign languages. American Sign Language is not at all like British Sign Language. It is much closer to French actually.
ETA That is French Sign Language. I’m not sure how close it is at all to spoken French
What we call sign language is really “American Sign Language”. Recognized by the US and Canada. Most other developed nations have their own.
Ethnologue (a good but not perfect online resource for information about languages) lists 130 different sign languages:
These do not correspond in any simple way with the spoken languages of the regions where they are used. Some places with nearly the same spoken language use different sign languages. Some places with entirely different spoken languages use the same sign language. It’s important to understand that a sign language in a given region is a completely different language from the spoken language of the region. It has a completely different grammar. The vocabulary doesn’t match up in any obvious way.
They bear absolutely no resemblance whatsoever. French sign language is a naturally occurring language that is hundreds of years old. Its grammar evolved completely separately from spoken French. The only thing they have in common is that they both evolved in the same geographical area. Beyond that, any similarity ends. ASL has an extremely bizarre grammar that in no way, shape, or form resembles spoken English. It’s sort like a cross between Russian and Navajo, but even saying that takes some considerable stretching of the imagination.
What do you mean “We,” Kemosabe?
I believe ASL is based primarily on French sign with great influence from Martha’s Vineyard sign. Borrowings occur from English in the form of Lexicalized signs - signs that evolved from fingerspelling. For example, “work” is a fully gestural sign but “job” is lexicalized - you flick J into B. And then there are “initialized” signs that involve a reference to the letter the English word starts with - the difference between King and Queen is the handshape Q vs the handshape K - the gesture is the same. Some of them are frowned on as being non-ASL (like the “very” form of the “much” sign, handshape V) while others seem to be accepted ASL signs (like the “therapy” form of the sign “help”, handshape T) but I’m still too ignorant to say that confidently. I’m not sure but I am starting to think that in general ASL doesn’t mind borrowed nouns but it rejects borrowed adjectives.
In addition to ASL, there’s also Signed Exact English (not a natural language, and only ideally suited for teaching English grammar in sign language) and Pidgin Signed English, which is ASL signs with mixed with both ASL and English grammar, particularly with English word order. Also known as a “contact sign”. PSE is far more commonly seen than true ASL in practice. Some people think it someday become a legitimate Creole (as Haitian is to French) while others are doubtful this will occur because of so few native speakers.
There is quite a bit of contention between the proponents of ASL and SEE.
SEE requires EVERY word to be signed, articles to be signed, and verb tense ending as well.
It is a fact, though, that people who have signed ASL since birth do not have necessary grammatical skills to write college-level essays.
I hear of very few proponents of actual SEE (other than for the purpose of teaching English). Functionally, It isn’t common at all outside educational settings where it is required. Whereas, PSE, is functionally more common than ASL.
Is that a fact? All the research I’m aware of says the exact opposite: born-deaf children exposed to sign from birth have about the same linguistic outcomes as hearing children exposed to spoken English. See, e.g.
*deaf and hearing individuals exposed to language in infancy perform comparably well in learning a new language later in life, whereas deaf individuals with little language experience in early life perform poorly, regardless of whether the early language was signed or spoken and whether the later language was spoken or signed. *
Nature, May 2002
What is a fact is that very few people sign ASL from birth (only 10% of deaf children in 2010) --almost no one over the age of 35 was systematically encouraged to sign at the age of 1 or 2 – and many presently-living deaf-from-birth adult ASL speakers were deprived of normal language formation in their first three years by forced oral education (which might work ok for people who went deaf after language formation, and not all all for people who were born deaf). Lack of exposure to some language- any language - for everyday communication during the critical period causes permanent cognitive deficiencies in the area of language aquisition, expression, and comprehension.
While I don’t claim to be spouting authority from thin air, I will admit this is something I learned probably thirty years ago. As a member of the Disabled Advisory Committee at the State of California Department of Transportation, I attended a conference at the School for the Deaf in Riverside, California. We received an abundance of information from numerous sources, and one topic was the assimilation of deaf children into the university environment.
The written language skills were noticeably lacking in ASL deaf students unless they had received additional coaching/training in English grammar and composition, and unless they had done significantly more reading than their peers. The point being made is that ASL in its structure and usage is essentially a DIFFERENT language than the written English, especially in college-level essay assignments.
I will concede that deaf education could very well have evolved in this aspect, precisely for these reasons. In order to fit in to a hearing world, the written skills are absolutely necessary.
I have a friend that teaches at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and my impressions from her comments are that on average deaf people graduate from high school with a somewhat lower level of ability in written English than hearing people. This means that she can expect her (deaf) college students to need to do more work on learning to compose well-written papers than the average hearing college student. This means that they are roughly in the same position as college students who grew up speaking Spanish in nearly all environments outside school but were taught entirely in English in school. They thus have to do some hard work to become equally proficient in both languages. Deaf people have to accept that they will spend the rest of their lives in a bilingual environment, and to keep up they have to be competent at both languages.
Bilingualism isn’t a freak condition. One statistic I saw once said that the majority of people in the world grow up speaking more than one language. In any case, it’s certainly true that a large proportion of the world’s population is multilingual and has learned to get by just fine speaking and writing more than one language.
Well, switch “ASL” to “any language other than English” and it will also be true. For people whose primary language is ASL but who write in English, English is a second language.
My English grammar would be shite if I hadn’t been taught English grammar, but just English words.