Facebook status and our ignorance of Deafness

On Saturday, a friend of mine posted a status on Facebook that got my attention instantly. I’ll call him by his Japanese nickname Mamoru (oh, no; I forgot the kanji he chose!); we were in the same Japanese class.

For the non-Jamaican readers, to “par” (“paar” in the official Jamaican writing system) means to “spend time”/”hang out”.

Anyway, what ensued was enlightening to me. I thought it was a good question. But at least one person seemed to think the answer was so obvious that the question couldn’t have been serious: “in the name of jesus lol behave”. Mamoru assured us he was serious, though.

The answers were very interesting:

  • You know what, that is an excellent question? Maybe they think as babies?
  • You mean what language does he use to speak to himself in his mind? Probably sign language
  • people deafness nuh affect di mind him think in english star lol
  • Lol on a serious note the language would be whatever language they learned their sign language in. It could be english , spanish etc.

These responses that I chose to put here are very telling. The one who said they think “as babies” seems, I’d guess, to not have taken into consideration that sign languages are languages. They would not think “as babies”, who have yet to acquire language. And then, those who said that they’d think in the spoken language of their region, “whatever language they learned their sign language in”…

Well, I like the response “deafness nuh affect di mind” (chaka-chaka Patois for “deafness does not affect the mind”); which is true and not true. A Deaf person had just as much mental ability as a hearing person. Well, mi wit mi faas self had to put in my two cents:

“They think in whatever sign language they grew up learning. Jamaican Sign Language for Jamaicans, of course.” I also said, “[If] English is not their first language (and it isn’t for most Deaf), why would they think in English?”

One person asked me: “so what is deemed their first language? Most who are born deaf have parents who are not deaf n learn to sign but read lips, if they are english speaking parents kindly explain what language would they read on ones lips?”

Well, she’s right about one thing: most deaf people are born to hearing parents. My answer: “Actually, it’s not right to assume that most Deaf can read lips. A large percent (most, if I remember the statistics) of Deaf have horrible levels of communication with their families since families tend not to want to learn sign language. Lip reading is not as easy as it seems. So, just because their parents know and use English/Patois doesn’t mean the Deaf child will be proficient at it.”

If a child is profoundly deaf and not raised Oralist, chances are English will be a second language at best. Spoken language may never be more than moving lips to them. Sign languages are alive for them; natural. I continued, “Imagine […] a home in which your only communication with your family is to rub your belly when you’re hungry or some simple things like that. Or having to take out pen and paper every time you want to tell them anything. That defines the life of many Deaf. It’s easy to feel that you have a better relationship with the TV.”
(Here’s a fun exercise: watch a TV-show or movie muted and no subtitles/captions. Make sure it’s an episode you’ve never seen before or, better yet, a movie/show that you don’t know the background of at all. If you’re lost at all, try to imagine what’s like to have your entire family muted every moment of every day. And worse: they don’t go out of their way to make sure you know what’s going on.)

Once again, I’m struck by the ignorance we hearing people have of sign languages. Too many of us think of them as basically manual versions of spoken language. I can’t blame them; I was where they were just a few years ago.

I said, “It’s wrong to assume that sign languages are the same as the spoken languages. JSL is markedly different from both English and Patois, with different rules and structures.” And yet someone replied: “… we can officially say you agree that whatever sign language a person learns. They will be thinking in the equivalent language. Which means a person that learns American sign language (ASL) , will be thinking in English sign.” He didn’t get it; that (natural) sign languages are not based on spoken languages; they were separate languages. Someone whose first language is a sign language would naturally think in that sign language; just that simple.

And then Mamoru brought up another misconception about sign languages: “Spoken language works with sounds, sign language works with actions. The similarities in actions come from the fact that despite culture some things have to be done certain ways. I am willing to bet that for example most common verbs (to cook, eat, play, sit) across sl’s are similar (if im wrong here please prove me wrong)…  a japanese deaf person can speak to a jamaican deaf person based on sl, tho there will be differences (mainly cultural) in some words.”

Not true. Yes, there is some more overlap of semantics (meaning) when it comes to sign languages (all sign languages I’ve seen have ‘you’ the same way, for the singular second person pronoun) than spoken ones. But even with Jamaica and its two sign languages, I’ve seen footage where interpreters were needed for communication between Country Sign and JSL. My JSL teacher has abroad for her Ph.D. research and told the class about being completely lost and the Deaf had to use ASL so she could understand. A Deaf guy I met on the bus has been to England told me he doesn’t understand British Sign Language.

Sorry for the long post. 🙂

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