Spoken vs. Sign Languages - What's the Difference?

Article excerpt


Sign languages have become an increasingly discussed scientific topic given the rising awareness as to the Deaf Community, their language and their culture. Access to information and services is a matter of human rights and therefore sign language recognition and the development of sign language interpreting as a profession have become a matter of interest and research for many countries. This article seeks to emphasize some aspects that differentiate sign languages from spoken languages from several points of view: language structure, language use, language acquisition and interpreting. The aim is to offer some insight into this fairly new domain, based on a comparative approach. In the attempt to demystify sign language and sign language interpreting we offer clear examples that we hope will be useful for those interested in this challenging domain.

KEYWORDS: sign language structure, language acquisition, sign language interpreting, simultaneous, consecutive

In recent years increased attention has been given to the study of sign languages and numerous scientific researchers (beginning with Stokoe, 1960) have proven wrong the long-held belief that sign languages are inferior ways of communication. Sign languages have also been recognized by many states as the respective native language of the Deaf communities in those particular countries. According to a survey conducted by the WFD (World Federation of the Deaf) Deaf People and Human Rights (2009), "out of 93 countries, most of which are developing countries, only 44 countries have formal recognition of the country's sign language(s)". (2010, p. 2) The same document states however that among those which officially recognized sign language, only few countries actually offer equal chances to deaf people from a linguistic point of view.

Given the measures adopted in many parts of the world to maximize the potential of these languages, they are now increasingly used and learned by teachers working with the Deaf, social workers, language students and interpreting students. We therefore consider it important to underline some differences between spoken and sign languages in order to identify the specific elements, potentially difficult, that one must deal with when learning a sign language.

Nevertheless, "sign languages are conventional communication systems that arise spontaneously in all deaf communities. [...] They effectively fulfill the same social and mental functions as spoken languages" (Sandler & Lillo-Martin, 2009). We are not trying to emphasize the differences between spoken and sign languages in the detriment of the similarities between them. Sandler and Lillo- Martin (2006) have extensively studied linguistics universals starting from Noam Chomsky's principles and showed that there are more similarities than differences between these two groups of languages.

Just like spoken languages, sign languages are merged with the culture of the Deaf communities. We consider that language and culture are inseparable, influencing one another. Although we will not discuss here the differences between the Deaf and the hearing culture, they represent a fundamental element in understanding the language, its use and the implications for communication and interpreting.

In this article we will look into some aspects that differentiate sign languages from spoken languages from several points of view: language structure, language use, language acquisition and interpreting. The herein approach is based on the experience we have gained as an interpreter working from spoken languages and from and into Romanian Sign Language. The starting point of this undertaking was represented by the difficulties we had when starting to learn Romanian Sign Language and our aim is to pinpoint these aspects for the further development of the domain in Romania.

Although several countries have researched intensively on their respective sign languages, developing the related domains and offering in-depth linguistic and socio-cultural data, Romania is still making its first steps in this direction and unfortunately it lacks thorough scientific research (for now). …