Everything you need to know about sign language
Updated: Aug 28
All of us have a unique way to communicate in order to navigate the world around us and interpret life.
Even though speaking is considered the most common language mode among people, not everyone is able to exercise it. There are over 10 million individuals across Pakistan who live with some level of hearing loss. For someone who maintains the condition of deafness and can’t hear sound, the use of auditory language to exchange information is a no-way. A large number of the population is disconnected from the mainstream hearing-dominated society and lie at the risk of being marginalised, because people who are limited to using only speech can’t communicate with them. A lack of accessibility to support the conversation between both communities also adds to the problem.
Because of this, a huge challenge in the form of a communication gap between D/deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing people arises. To bridge this gap, a non-verbal language known as sign language exists.
So, you must now be wondering, what exactly is this sign language?
1. Sign language is a natural and visual form of language that uses movements and expression to convey meaning between people.
Sign language is a non-verbal language that Deaf persons exclusively count on to connect with their social environment. It is based on visual cues through the hands, eyes, face, mouth, and body. The gestures or symbols in sign language are organised in a linguistic way. It is a rich combination of finger-spelling, hand gestures, body language, facial expressions, timing, touch, and anything else that communicates thoughts or ideas without the use of speech.
Deaf people are the main users of sign language. Some hard of hearing people use it as a handy means of communication too. It is also used by those hearing individuals who can’t use speech, be it due to a disability or condition, or by those who have Deaf family members, and used even sometimes by monks who have taken a vow of silence.
2. No person or committee invented sign language.
No one knows for sure when the first Deaf person tried out visual gestures to express themselves. Many sources agree that using hand gestures and body language is one of the oldest and most basic forms of human communication, and it has been around just as long as spoken language.
If we had neither voice nor tongue, and yet wished to manifest things to one another, should we not, like those which are at present mute, endeavour to signify our meaning by our hands, head, and other parts of the body?
Native Americans also used sign language to communicate with other ethnic groups who spoke different languages. Even long after the European conquest, this system was in use. Another example is the case of a rare ethnic group that carried genes for deafness. Their island was isolated, so the trait spread among the locals at speed and a great population of Deaf people was formed. A local deaf culture developed and sign language arose so that the deaf could communicate with each other.
In South Asian literature history, there are hardly any mention of sign languages and Deaf people. If there are some, they all date back to ancient times. In religious subjects, symbolic hand gestures have been used for many centuries, but their customs often excluded Deaf participation. Classical Indian dance and theatre also sometimes uses hand and arm gestures that have specific meanings.
In the Hidayah, a 12th century Islamic legal commentary, there was a reference to visual signals used by Deaf people for communication. Deaf people were acknowledged to have legal standing in areas like bequests, marriage, divorce, and financial transactions if they could communicate with understandable signs.
Some say today that sign language came into form more than 200 years ago through the mixture of different cultures and local sign languages. As time went on, the mixed form changed into a vibrant, complex, and mature language in every region.
3. Different countries have different sign languages.
There are several thousand spoken languages across the world and all are different from each other in one sense or the other. In the same way, sign language has hand gestures and visual representations of many different types.
There is Pakistani Sign Language (PSL), American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL), French Sign Language (LSF), Indian Sign Language (ISL), and so on. American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) are both based on English language. Pakistani Sign Language (PSL) and Indian Sign Language (ISL) are also well-known sign languages in the South Asian region.
There are many varieties of sign language in the region, including several subsets of home and local sign languages. There is difference in the flow of signing, pronunciation, slang, and some gestures. These local signs also have distinct accents and dialects, similar to how certain English or Urdu words are spoken differently in separate parts of the country.
4. Sign language is different from spoken language.
Every language, whether verbal or non-verbal, has their own elements and functions and differ from each other in how they are used.
Even though sign language is another means of communication and also has every basic feature of language, it is still different from spoken language in many ways.
You can express your thoughts and ideas in sign language in different forms, just as you can with other languages like Urdu or English. Unlike in spoken languages where speakers may convey meaning by using their voice, sign language users may use hand gestures and facial expression to send a visual signal, use signs to wave hello or goodbye to someone, or point to something they want and use body language to emphasise any idea.
5. Sign languages have their own grammar.
It is said that sign languages are the manual representation of spoken languages, but that’s not true. In reality, both language modes have their own grammar structure, vocabulary, and syntax. The grammars of these visual and gesture-based sign languages are unlike the grammars of sound-based or written languages.
Unlike in spoken languages where grammar is expressed through sound-based signifiers for tense, aspect, mood and syntax (the way we organise individual words), sign languages use hand movements, sign order, as well as body and facial cues to create grammar. In ASL, certain mouth and eye movements act as adjectival or adverbial modifiers.
That is because gesture-based languages are concerned with appearance and concepts, whereas spoken and written languages are more about grammar rules.
6. Children learn sign languages the same way they learn spoken languages.
Parents are usually the power source of a child’s early language learning. Children learn how to do signs from a young age and as natural as they do with any spoken languages. There are also important sign language stages and baby babble. When babies are learning the visual language, they babble with their hands and over time, learn how to better express their signs.
If a hearing child is born to parents who are deaf and use sign language, the child will catch the mechanism the same way they would if the parents used a spoken language, and become fluent sign language users.
On the other hand, if a Deaf child has hearing parents, the learning of sign language may be different. In fact, studies suggest that 9 out of 10 children who are deaf are born to hearing parents. Some hearing parents are reluctant to introduce sign language to their Deaf child. Some of them who do choose to, they learn it along with their Deaf child so that they could communicate with them. Sometimes, the child may only learn sign language through their deaf peers, other Deaf family members, or community people.
7. Sign language is a visual language.
We all already know this fact, but it’s important to emphasise. Sign language may be like any other language in many ways and should be valued as such, but it’s also different.
Sign language is expressive and artistic in comparison to a spoken language’s auditory nature. The gestures of hands and body, facial expressions, and finger-spelling breathe life into its visual spirit. Sign language may be an animated way to convey meaning, but it can be quite easy and formal, as best shown in our video here:
Communication in sign language is like a dramatic arts performance − the rhythm of words, expressive facial cues, the little pauses in between, the breath intake, the emphasis and melody, body language, and head and hands gestures.
It is beautiful not only because it shows us what sign language has the power to do, but because it shows us what language does.
Want to learn sign language? You can easily learn the basics online from here.