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Cool stuff about sign language
December 20, 2013 - Stephen Browne
When I blogged about the unseemly behavior of Barack Obama, David Cameron and Helle Thorning-Schmidt at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, I could also have mentioned the embarrassing incident of the "sign language interpreter" who was signing gibberish up there in front of the whole world.
Turns out the guy is a convicted felon and probably not an interpreter at all. Deaf people like actress Marlee Matlin immediately started pointing this out.
This could be what people like to call a "teaching moment." People like to call massive screw-ups "teaching moments," it makes us feel less stupid after being taken in by a complete fraud.
Sooooo, sign language. It turns out there are a lot of really fascinating things about sign langauge. In no particular order:
*There are different sign languages, and different dialects within any given sign language. In the U.S. deaf people use ASL (American Sign Language or "Ameslan") and something called SEE (Signing Exact English). Ameslan has a completely different grammar and structure from spoken English. SEE reproduces spoken English word-for-word to enable the deaf from birth to acquire written English and lip reading skills more easily.
*Deaf Americans sign a different language from deaf English people - but closely related to the sign language of deaf French, due to historical circumstances.
*Deaf people always seem to come up with some kind of signing when they associate with other deaf people, even if they have never been taught to sign.
*Signers of different languages put together can make the transition to mutual comprehension far more rapidly than users of spoken languages. When an American deaf dance troupe went to work with colleagues in Japan they were conversing fluently in a mixed sign language within weeks.
*The deaf can conduct conversations across a crowded room, they only need to see each other.
*Police seldom realize when they arrest and handcuff a deaf person, they are effectively gagging them and often don't understand when the deaf react with panic.
*There is a Central American Indian tribe with a very high rate of congenital deafness due to the small gene pool. Every member of the tribe, deaf or hearing, is fluent in their own sign language and can slip effortlessly between spoken and sign language in mid-conversation, or in the case of the hearing communicate in both at the same time.
*There has been a long-running historical debate between advocates of sign language and those who bitterly oppose the use of sign language, fearing it would create a "deaf culture." The latter included Alexander Graham Bell.
*The Plains Indians evolved a sign language for speakers of different languages to communicate with each other, and so far as is known without the involvement of deaf people. If you touch your cheek, then point your index finger in the "gun gesture" forbidden in public schools, it means "paint colored horse." If you do it and wiggle your hand up and down it means "paint colored horse drinking." It's odd to consider you can sign that phrase far more quickly than you could say it.
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