August is often considered to be the National Inventors Month by many and BITS and Pieces salutes inventors and inventions worldwide that have brought solutions and accessibility into our lives- be it wheelchairs, hearing aids, sign language or even Braille. So this month, we have decided to learn a little more about a neglected, but quite a fascinating language which is very much a part of the society we belong to: Sign Language.
“But isn’t that like a miming game for the deaf and mute people?” a small voice in your head may ask. Believe it or not, it is for everyone. The words may be replaced by gestures, but it is still a language. People still communicate with its speakers, put their point across, bridge barriers and also find common grounds. If I have managed to captivate your interest, read on folks!
Sign Language. Hmm, what’s that?
The deaf and the mute around the world communicate using sign language which is a visual language that uses a system of manual, facial and body movements in order to communicate. It is not necessarily termed as ‘universal’ even though there is an International Sign (IS) often used for organizations and meetings. Most countries have their own versions, such as the American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL), French Sign Language (LSF), Japanese Sign Language (JSL), Spanish Sign Language (LSE), Turkish Sign Language (TID) and so on and so forth.
The common notion is to associate sign language only with the deaf community but this isn’t true. The BSL for instance, is the preferred language of 156,000 people in the UK alone. Another astonishing fact: as per the statistics, American Sign Language is the fourth most used language in USA! Unlike its international counterparts, the Indian Sign Language (ISL) is still in its rudimentary stage of development. Imagine having a functioning sign system that provides an opportunity for the deaf to communicate with non-signing people without even requiring an interpreter!
But why me
Man has been using hand gestures to communicate since the dawn of mankind, and this system is imbibed in all of us to some extent. Even though a Frenchman named Pablo de Bonet wrote a book in 1920 depicting the manual alphabet system for using hand shapes that symbolised sounds for the first time, humanity has used hand gestures ever since the days of Adam and Eve.
While Indian Sign may not be recognised as an official language in India, we all sign, knowing or unknowingly – be it when we meet someone who doesn’t speak the same languages as us, or across a sound proof glass, or in a library. In our country, Cricket and classical Dance, the two preeminent passions of many comprise hand gestures as well! So why not a slightly formal regulation? It becomes an effort on our part to understand people better. Like in the case of any foreign language.
How does it work
Contrary to popular belief, sign is well structured with a phonology, morphology, syntax and grammar distinctive from the spoken languages. A simple gesture with one hand expressing ‘hi’ or ‘goodbye’ has the same meaning all over the world , whereas in sign language, the signs are generated by combinations of hand motions and finger gestures, frequently augmented with mouth movements according to the spoken language.
While innovation and creativity have been fuelling all human needs for ages, sign is no exception to technology. Back in our own motherland, a few students from the Women’s Engineering college in Mala (Kerala) developed a device called the Gesture Vocalizer for the hearing impaired, that converts sign language to voice and text.
And did you know that about 10% of the population in the world is born with some sort of a hearing impairment? Out of which 1% is profoundly deaf. And did you also know that 92% of all profoundly deaf people are born to hearing parents? A few other reasons to add to your list, as to why you should learn to sign! And if not anything else, it just makes you a more “global” citizen.