I get so many questions concerning my language background and forgive me, but some of them are frustratingly stupid. Here’s my second (and hopefully last) sign language rant.
Sign languages are not gestures for spoken languages. For example, BSL (the British Sign Language) is not signed English. Sign languages are distinct cultural languages. Most of them have nothing to do with the underlying spoken language that is used in that area. Sign languages are not international. Sign language does not equal fingerspelling. Not all signers know spoken languages. Not all signers can lip read. Not all signers are deaf.
Fingerspelling is used for names but people can also have name signs that follow certain cultural rules varying from country to country. The name is always given to you and agreed by you and the people in the deaf community. You only get a name sign if they think you deserve it because you’re part of the community. Until that, your name is fingerspelled. I used to have a name sign.
My Welsh father was deaf which makes me a child of a deaf adult (also known as CODA). His native language was BSL. My mother was German and her native language was German. They communicated with each other in bad English, bad BSL and angry scowls. So, my language background is a bit unusual. I grew up using both BSL and German and I didn’t really speak English until I went to nursery school at the age of 5. I stopped talking to my mother almost completely at the age of 8, refused to speak German and therefore gradually lost my German language skills.
English didn’t take over because I have a twin brother. We’ve always been very close and BSL was our “secret language”. When we were children our best friend was our cousin who is deaf so that’s the language we used. As a CODA I often had to serve as an interpreter between my father and hearing people whether it was everyday communication with our neighbours or say, a doctor’s appointment. I think it was simply wrong and reprehensable because I was often thrown in the middle of adult conversations. It’s not a place for a child.
I consider BSL my first language. I don’t get to use it very often these days but it still dominates my thinking. Sometimes I almost wish that I could just forget it and wash it off because the need to “speak with my hands” is often very strong. I can replace spoken words with body language and gestures without necessarily noticing it myself. I’m simplifying here, but sign languages use a different “word order” (topic-comment structure) compared to many spoken languages, and BSL is an oddball even amongst sign languages because it also uses OSV (object-subject-verb, Yoda’s syntax). To make things even more complicated, I am a left-handed writer and a left-handed signer. It means that I use my left hand as my dominant/primary hand even when signing, as does my brother.
My BSL is getting rusty and it’s depressing. I’ve lost contact with my cousins and I’m not part of the community anymore. I don’t speak English as well as I’d like to either. I’m not bilingual. I’m semilingual or somehow linguistically paralysed and lonely. Now you can understand why I say that I always think before I speak. Some people misinterpret those few seconds of silence as arrogance which doesn’t make it any easier for me.
I feel like the only person who understands me completely is my twin. Pixie and my best friend understand me too, but that’s because they know that I need time. They are patient. They are lovely.
By the way, if you see people using sign language it’s better to not automatically assume that they’re not hearing. “Look! Deaf twins! Oh my God!” (Yes, this has happened.) Also, don’t cover your mouth with your hand if you want to gossip because they will know that you’re talking about them and it’s insulting. Why else would you try to prevent someone from lip-reading. If you’re talking to someone and notice that they’re wearing a hearing aid, don’t start yelling. You don’t have to, because they’re wearing a hearing aid. In case they still can’t hear you they will politely ask you to speak up.
Here’s a picture of a cute cat.