What The Data About Sign Language Tells Us.


Are there polyglots of sign language? Someone on Quora wondered the same thing — and even though the answer is an obvious, ‘Hold on. Of course’ — I have to confess that the question only came to my mind after I’d read Michael Erard’s Babel No More and wondered if there were similar ‘lessons’ to be found in meeting sign language polyglots the way Erard sought lessons amongst vocal polyglots — and maybe find my way clear to buying a drink at The Deaf Lounge, too.

Recent data suggests the following: that providing students with a bilingual ASL/English instruction improves how they test across the board, and that’s important because — for one thing — “the median reading achievement of 18-year-old deaf students remains that of a typical 9-year-old hearing student …” (which isn’t intended to pathologize this and it isn’t to say that the use of the language isn’t still wonderfully, refreshingly clever, i.e., someone charged with testing language ability at a school here in Massachusetts told me that the signed words for ‘Newton’ and ‘Wellesley’ were constructed as ‘N + Stuck up’ and ‘W+Stuck up’); that there is an imbalance between the current deaf and hard of hearing population in the United States and Doctors who are deaf or hard of hearing (an estimated 170,000 vs. some 500,000-to-2,000,000); that — relatedly, per a report called ‘Medisigns’ authored by four professors — a gap exists in providing a high-quality sign language interpreter in medical settings in Cyprus and Ireland, but that Sweden has a good system in place (which — they don’t have an alarmingly low GINI coefficient for nothing); that lots of people are interested in studying the effects of cochlear implants; that — as per a study conducted between Oxford and the University of Leeds — “mouth patterns are highly informative for isolating words in a language for the Deaf”; that — according to the research of two professors at the University of California, San Diego — the frequency of deafness in Palestine is 70% higher than the global average; and — as Deaf Around the World notes — that 80% of the world’s deaf lives in developing countries, which would make trying to universally apply ASL silly, as — for example — only a quarter of words in Australian and New Zealand sign language bear any similarity as cognates.

Sign language doesn’t just differ from country to country, though (when I sign ‘cinema’ in ASL, for instance, it looks nothing like what my friend signs in Lyon); it’s moved across borders and developed in ways different from vocal language, too. ‘Modern’ sign begins in Spain with the publication of Juan Pablo Bonet’s guide in 1620 (though sign language was the reported lingua franca in the court of Osman II during the Ottoman Empire, and he ruled from 1618 to 1622.) A little later — sometime before 1771 — Charles-Michel de l’Épée ducked into a house in Paris to escape the rain and encountered two sisters signing to each other. Épée founded a school for the deaf in 1771 and made some use of the already existing sign language in the culture to build up a language. One of the teachers in Épée’s employ — Laurent Clerc — moved to the United States and — once ensconced in Connecticut — began teaching and developing ASL. A similar story can be told with France and Mexico. (Also: think about why we call an ‘EpiPen’ an ‘EpiPen,’ then. (Yeah, yeah — it’s short for ‘Epinephrine autoinjector,’ but — if it’s not intentional — it’s certainly a striking display of lexical serendipity.))

Whereas Michael Erard spoke of Giueseppe Mezzofanti, Emil Krebs, Elihu Burritt, Ken Hale, Harold Williams, Richard Francis Burton, Johan Vandewalle and others, he missed out on people like Lindsay Dunn, a professor at Gallaudet University who — growing up in South Africa —

moved from Zulu to English to Afrikaans almost on a daily basis […] we heard Xhosa, Sotho, Shangaan and slang (mix of all the various languages) all around us whether on the bus, walking the streets, or even at school or work … There also are multiple signed languages in South Africa. SA Sign Language is actually a mix of some dozen sign languages that still persist within various groups in the country. The sign language I used for instance was based on the Irish Sign Language brought to SA by the Dominican nuns. It is used mostly by Cape Coloreds. Then when one goes out to Gugulethu or Langa townships where the people come from the Eastern Cape, the sign language used is very different. I do not know the roots of that sign language but I do know one needs to know Xhosa to understand. That is also true when one goes to KwaZulu and visits — say — the Fulton School for the Deaf where the British two handed method of sign prevails. A short distance away is the KwaThintwa School for the Deaf and there the sign language is also very different (one needs to know Zulu to understand.) A short distance away is the V. Naik School for the Deaf where a combination of American Sign Language and the various South African signs appear to dominate. This suggests that within the major metropolitan areas of South Africa for instance, deaf people will move between a number of sign languages just as hearing people move between various spoken languages.

“Multilingualism is multilingualism,” Dr. Murray — a colleague of Professor Dunn — tells me, “whether in spoken languages, sign languages, or one-plus spoken and one-plus signed language. However, there are advantages to learning sign language that do not seem to be found when learning spoken languages.  For example, studies show Deaf people or people who sign have a cognitive advantage in spatial memory, visual working memory, and other cognitive skills involving vision.”

Erin Wilkinson — a Professor of linguistics at the University of Manitoba — pointed out the edges of the question, though, saying that “there are no formal studies done on signed polygots except in passing, saying that we should look at them as a population in future studies (e.g. psycholinguistics studies on bimodal bilinguals, Emmorey, Chen Pichler.) We don’t know anything in particular how [signed polyglots] acquire two signed languages — is it similar to hearing bilinguals? What do deaf bilinguals’ brains look like compared to hearing bilinguals? […] Do we find more deaf bilinguals who co-exist with hearing bilinguals in multilingual environments (e.g. indigenous/micro signing communities? What about language attitudes/perspective about their signed languages (Do they use one signed language only in specific settings/people as opposed to other times?)”

The lessons seem basic, then: that — at a minimum — ASL/English bilingualism boosts test scores; that — in particular — it boosts visual working memory, spatial memory, and skills involving vision; and that — should one wish to build bridges with deaf communities across the world — you’re going to have to learn.