CODA series: Sign Language

I have been using sign language all my life. I grew up in a ‘deaf family’, where both my parents are deaf. They have been signing at me since I was a newborn and I have been signing back for longer than I have been talking. By the time I started school, I was bi-lingual, using sign language and English at home on a daily basis.

Sign languages are languages that use what linguists call the ‘visual-manual modality‘ to convey meaning. In the place of speech and hearing, sign languages use hands in combination with other body expressions to communicate meaning. These are fully-fledged natural languages with their own grammar and vocabularies and have always developed wherever deaf people exist.

A common misconception is that all deaf people use a universal sign language that is mutually understood by all deaf people. This is not the case. In fact, each country generally has its own native sign language, and some have more than one. Some estimates have over 130 distinct sign languages in the world. In the United States that sign language is American Sign Language (ASL), in Britain it is British Sign Language (BSL) and here in Ireland, the deaf community use Irish Sign Language (ISL). There are approximately 5,000 deaf people in Ireland who use ISL as their first language. A further 40,000 people (including me) use it in a family, social or work context.

A history of Irish Sign Language

Deaf people developed their language organically over the past few hundred years, mainly through the educational system where deaf people were brought together into groups and the language could be formalised. Interestingly, as schools for the deaf were segregated based on gender, boys and girls often developed separate sign vocabularies. Additionally, religion had an impact on the development of ISL, with Catholic and Protestant institutions developing different signs including importing some signs from other countries. According to Ethnologue, influences are evident from both Langue des Signes Française (French Sign Language or LSF) and British Sign Language (BSL). In turn, ISL was brought by Irish Catholic missionaries to Australia and South Africa, where it was incorporated into their sign languages.

LSF descends from Old French Sign Language, which developed among the deaf community in Paris. The earliest mention of Old French Sign Language is by the abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée in the late 17th century, but it could have existed for centuries prior. Several European sign languages, such as Russian Sign Language, derive from it, as does American Sign Language. BSL developed organically and was first formally codified by Thomas Braidwood at the Braidwood School for the Deaf in Edinburgh, which he established in 1760.

The first school for deaf children in Ireland, the Claremont Institute in Glasnevin was established in 1816 by Dr. Charles Orpen. It was a Protestant institution and unsurprisingly, given that Ireland was then a part of the United Kingdom, BSL was used for teaching and learning. In the 1830s, tensions between the churches over education prompted Catholics to open separate schools. In 1846, St Mary’s, Cabra, was established by Dominican nuns with connections with France and LSF while St. Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys (also in Cabra) was opened by the Christian Brothers in 1857.

The infamous Milan Congress of 1880 brought together teachers of the deaf from around the world who advocated oralism and banned sign language and deaf teachers in schools for the deaf around the world. The Cabra schools did not immediately comply and for many years, sign language was central to the education of the deaf in Ireland. By the 1940s, the oralist method gained favour and children were taught to lip-read and speak. At that time, the use of sign language was stigmatised and suppressed. However, in the 1970s, deaf activism re-centred ISL at the heart of the identity and culture of deaf people culminating in their successful campaign to have Irish Sign Language recognised as an official language of Ireland in 2017.

Using Sign Language

My brothers and I began using sign language as babies, acquiring signs for basic items, places and people. Sign language vocabularies are vast and, when we did not know the sign for a particular word or if none existed (as often happens with proper nouns), we would use finger-spelling.

With finger-spelling, 26 signs representing the letters of the alphabet are used to spell out words. The ISL alphabet is pictured above and, with those signs, if you can spell it, you can say it. However, it is important to note that finger-spelling is linguistically closer to English than ISL. You are literally spelling out English words and sentences letter by letter, which is not only tedious but open to reading difficulties. (Bad fingerspelling can be as incomprehensible as a page of text with no spacing or punctuation).

Finger-spelling is distinct from Signed English, which uses English grammar and matches signs to it, word for word (and not letter for letter). Many hearing people (including school teachers) use this ‘pidgin’ form of sign language to communicate with deaf people.

My development of sign language began with baby gestural sign, followed by finger-spelling to cover the gaps in my vocabulary. A benefit of using finger-spelling is that I needed to be able to spell every word I was using and developed above average spelling skills! As my sign vocabulary developed, I grew into using Signed English and finally, at an older age when I had absorbed the nuance and grammar of sign language, I began using ISL. This was my own personal development route and I would imagine varies for each child of deaf people depending on various circumstances.

My mother and father had quite different education experiences. My father was educated entirely through sign at St. Joseph’s whereas my mother was educated using the oralist method at Sr. Mary’s. My mother can lip-read, my father does not. My mother speaks, my father does not. While both my parents would consider sign language as their natural ‘first language’, my mother did not begin to acquire formal ISL until she had left school and began socialising with the wider deaf community. She and her oralist method classmates had been segregated from the signing deaf kids and prohibited from using signs at school up until then. As a result, my mother is essentially bi-lingual and this allowed English to take precedence in our home in a way that ISL might had both my parents only used sign. This is quite common in deaf families with two signing parents while families of deaf people where the adults were both educated in the oralist method often have no sign language in the home.

These days, I have my own home and we use sign language all the time. Not because there are deaf people here but because sometimes the spoken word isn’t good enough, quiet enough or loud enough.

This is a series of articles about my experiences growing up and living as a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA). While I speak about various issues related to the experiences of deaf people and their families that may be shared by others, these remain my personal opinions and I do not claim to speak on behalf of the deaf community.

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