international sign language

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what is a sign language?

sign language is a complete language like any spoken language, but using hand and facial gestures (primarily) to convey meaning. some gestures are ‘pictorial’, and convey their meaning without reference to any other language; other gestures refer to words in a spoken language, usually by ‘finger-spelling’ some of the letters from the word.

is there an international sign language?

sign languages are regionally specific, to countries and even to regions within countries (just as with spoken dialects). there is an international sign language, originally called Gestuno, but it is an ‘artificial’ language (in the same way as Esperanto) and its use is limited.

who would use an international sign language?

if enough people learnt it, then we all would – all the time:

  • in normal conversation: watch people talk and you’ll see that we use hand gestures normally. If we learnt hand gestures that reinforced what we were saying, communication would be doubly effective, with less chance of misunderstandings.
  • in clubs and bars when the music is too loud to talk
  • when travelling abroad
  • with deaf people: approximately 1% of the population are severely or profoundly deaf and 15% are hard of hearing
  • when you grow old: almost everyone experiences hearing loss as they grow older, which is frustrating and often isolating
  • across large distances when shouting is ineffective or not appropriate
  • to someone in another car: ever wished you could chat up someone in a neighbouring car at traffic lights?
  • in noisy environments: many people work in noisy conditions where accurate communication is essential for their safety: building and other engineering sites, factories, assembly lines, marshalling yards, power stations, engine rooms, …
  • on set, in theatre, film, TV or radio: when the action’s running, many people need to communicate behind the scenes, but silently

why is sign language preferable to, say, English?

English is a spoken language used on an everyday basis by less than a tenth of the world population. English is of direct benefit only to those who work in international business, the tourist industry, or who have access to cable TV. English has a cultural history that is seen as threatening to many people for whom it is not their first language.

an artificial sign language on the other hand would enhance communication on a day to day basis for all ‘speakers’, whilst also opening up the possibility of communicating with those who do not share a spoken language. we would all have to learn it, but we would all benefit from doing so.

what would be the downsides?

  • sign cannot assist with written communication. however technology is better able to address this problem, both with machine translation (most easily with e-mails and web pages) and, in the longer term, with widespread use of video telephony.
  • people would be able to cheat more easily when sitting examinations together.
  • we would never be able to play charades ever again.

further reading

contributors

Edward Leigh

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