Sign Language

Introduction to Sign Languages

The profoundly, prelingually deaf can and do acquire language, sign language. Every country has it’s own sign language. Those not familiar with Sign may suppose that it’s an invented form of communication like Esperanto but it is not. It is an independent and natural language with a heritage as long as many spoken languages, evolved by ordinary people and transmitted culturally from one generation to the next. To the surprise of many it is more similar to Chinese than any other language because a single inflected gesture can convey an entire word or phrase.  Sign can be acquired effortlessly in early childhood, children are wonderfully natural language sponges. My children sign and have even developed their own dialect between them, one which Nina and I often cannot understand, but then I suspect that is the point of it -the little monkeys! Sign is wonderfully expressive and versatile, it equips users with the ability to manipulate concepts, symbols, describe abstract ideas, actively acquire and process knowledge. I have never met a hearing person who after learning sign has not been impressed with just how rich signing is as a language of artistic expression. Though I can speak and lip read a lot of conversation between Nina and I is in sign, especially when we are exploring complex subjects. It is also wonderful as a language of love.

Unfortunately many hearing people who claim themselves to be  authorities on the subject of deafness have long insisted that the best way to educate the deaf is to teach them spoken language ! As if the astounding arrogance of them were not enough, in the past they often went as far as to  as to employ physically abusive methods to actively suppress signing which was always utterly disastrous for their victims.

“In what language do the profoundly deaf think?” is that they think in Sign. This does of course assume they were fortunate enough to have learned it in infancy/childhood.

Dutch Sign Language

“Nederlandse Gebarentaal” or “NGT” is the Sign Language used by Congenital/Hereditary deaf people in the Netherlands. Strange as it may seem it is not officially recognised. People like myself who become deaf suddenly or gradually (so-called deaf postlingual) generally use “Nederlands met Gebaren” or “NmG”. Since1995, more and more schools for the deaf in The Netherlands teach “Nederlands met Gebaren”, in English it is ” Dutch with Gestures” and it uses the same grammar as Dutch spoken language. but is supported by Dutch spoken gestures. This support with gestures makes it much more visual. NMG is basically the Dutch lexicon with elements of the grammar of Dutch Sign Language used for visual support. NMG largely follows the grammar of the Dutch language, including all proverbs, sayings and expressions. In contrast Dutch sign language, creates it’s own grammar which is necessary for those who have never heard their own language, this is why the two languages exist happily together.

As our son was deaf from birth he was taught NGT while I originally learnt NMG. I have adapted to NGT though I can switch between the two, while Nina and Hilke use NGT almost exclusively. My son is a very creative child in painting, drawing, crafts, model making, I often just watch him at the big table as I work in the kitchen. While he sits and thinks before he starts a drawing or model I see him moving his hands. It is as though he is sketching out in space his thoughts. When i ask his sister what he is doing she confirms this, in fact she does the same herself when they are sitting together. It seems that despite her being able to hear growing up in a household with two deaf people she has developed her own linguistic thought habits thus crossing the gulf between the world of the hearing and deaf.

Deaf / Blind

In 2008 I spent a summer with very little sight, offically blind in fact, following a round of surgery. In this period I had to learn to palm-sign. Despite the description “deaf-blind” of deaf-blind people, most are not both totally deaf and totally blind It is a collective name for all variations in the combination of visual impairment / blindness and hearing impairment / deafness but whatever the exact nature I can assure you it is terrifying and painfully isolating. Communication is solely by hand and fingers.

  • Vierhanden-gebarentaal – Four Hands sign language

The “vierhanden-gebarentaal” or four-hands sign language uses the same gestures as the Sign Language. The difference is that during the gestures of the speaker loosely holds the hands of the deaf-blind person so that he can feel what the other gesturing. Most signs are thus quite clearly be felt with practice and many develop custom gestures especially where some sort of specialist terms are required.

  • Vingerspellen-in-de-hand – Finger Games-in-hand

The “vingerspellen-in-de-hand” or the finger games-in-hand is directly derived from the normal hand alphabet. For someone who knows Dutch manual alphabet, the finger can also be played-in-hand. It prints the letter in the palm of the deaf-blind. The rule is that spelling is done right with the right hand of the deaf-blind. An experienced person can feel the characters faster than the seeing eye can follow, though I never developed my skills to this speed.

  • Lorm-schrift – Lorm-script

“Lorm-schrift” or Lorm-script consists Lorm, forming stripes and dots in the left palm of the deafblind. The reading is very difficult for the deaf and blind, but I am told that a skilled person cab get remarkable speeds with it.

Any time I am feeling sorry for myself, when I find myself struggling with my eye sight I come and watch this video to remind me that my problems are as nothing compared to this little fellow.

The Deaf: Driving Cognitive Development Theories

The hearing can have only a general idea what this is like. Even I, deaf (acquired) as I am can only just grasp it and I have a son who thinks in sign ! The gulf between spoken and visual language is far greater than that between, say, Dutch and English. Recent PET Scan studies of the deaf and hearing brains have shown that there is a structural difference in brain structures. What  is even more interesting is that PET Scans of people with acquired deafness who have learn’t sign show structural changes taking place as their signing skills develop and this has provided the big clue to the theory that how we think can actually rearrange the physical structure of the brain itself. This has opened up a whole new area of study into the brain and it’s physiological reaction to external stimulus.

Author: Judith

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