Sign Language: Communication Superpower?

What The Fuck?



Deafness was an isolating disability – excluding the deaf person from everyday conversation – as little as two hundred years ago. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that a comprehensive working sign language was invented. It’s hard to imagine what a paradigm shift that must have been. Sign language suddenly restored communication, in real-time, at the speed of conversation, to millions of deaf people. The handicap of hearing loss no longer meant permanent disconnection. Formalization of sign language was rapid. Its eager adoption went nationwide in a matter of years.

Now, as most of us know, there are literally thousands of spoken dialects in hundreds of written languages across the world. There are dozens of complete linguistic ecosystems – like English, Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Greek, Hebrew, Farsee, Arabic, Hindi, Urdu, Japanese, Tagalog, Malayalam, Korean, Cantonese, Swahili — many languages with hundreds of millions sharing a common spoken and written lexicon.

The major world languages evolved over thousands of years, in a complex unrepeatable cross-pollination of migrations and influences and interactions. Most languages are unintelligible to each other; but communication is critical in a multicultural world and an entire industry of translation has been built on the need to share understanding between different native linguists.

Bilinguals have been highly valued for centuries, from the simultaneous translator at the United Nations to the literary artist rendering a foreign masterpiece in all its nuanced, complex beauty. In an everyday sense, anyone serious about learning a foreign culture will find it impossible without becoming fluent in at least two languages.

The cultural separation of unfamiliar language is the basis of the divine punishment in the Tower of Babel story. How much easier it would be if we were able to communicate across borders — peace, trade, free flow of knowledge, culture and understanding— if everyone only spoke the same universal language? Alas, we can’t.

What’s more, as any international traveller will testify, not speaking the local language is a recipe for isolation; almost like a handicap, trapped in an unfamiliar, unknowable world. We could describe it as an equivalent to being struck deaf; lost in a crowd of voices speaking to each other and to you, but infuriatingly, impossible to comprehend…

Today, while still in its infancy, new real-time translator technology is slowly being developed. But it’s a slow, imperfect process. Language remains as it was in the 19th century: linguistic barriers today are as real and tangible a reality as ever.

The inventors of sign language for the deaf, in the early 19th-century, were multilingual scholars. They were academics familiar with international travel.

Deafness had been perceived as a severe disability since time immemorial; as indeed it was until sign language was popularized. Those early inventors of the first complete sign languages had a unique opportunity, however, to turn the handicap of deafness into something more like a superpower.

Mindful of the plethora of mutually unintelligible languages, those sign progenitors could’ve devised a universal language. They could have agreed one united sign language, regardless of the country or root language. Just imagine for a moment how transformative this simple consensus could have been.

The deaf student, far from being isolated in his or her own environment, would learn sign language and, once familiar, open an instant channel of universal communication with millions of deaf people across the world; in every country, in every language, every dialect. The disability would be transformed into a solution that’s — at least in some ways — greater than any spoken fluency in a single tongue.

Why in the name of Babel didn’t those sign language pioneers do this? It would have been such a simple standard to agree.

Instead, there is no universal sign language. Sign language in France is as different to sign language in England as the French and English languages themselves. It’s an incomprehensible missed opportunity; and it gets worse!

All the countries mapped have their own distinct sign language, including the countries using the same spoken and written language like England, America and Australia.

Sign language in England is different to sign language in the United States, and different to sign language in Australia. None are mutually compatible, despite the three countries speaking and writing the same English language. Is there anything more baffling?

I’ve yet to find an answer for this inexplicable failure. It’s as if the inventors of each national sign language agreed not to gift the deaf a global communication tool but to handicap the handicap by formalizing a new lexicon of signs less useful than their native spoken word.

You could send an English letter from London to New York to Sydney and be understood in each country. You could read the same letter in all three cities and be understood. But if you try to use your sign language learned in London in New York or Sydney, it would be incomprehensible.

The chance to create —  for the deaf (and the hearing too) — a communication superpower is wasted. Instead, if anything, these pointlessly incompatible sign languages add a new handicap limitation to compound the original disability.

What the f**k!

The evolution of a hundred incompatible sign languages — missed opportunity, disabling the handicap rather than turning a handicap into a superpower…