Okay, before I go on, let me explain that while I don’t really like Signed English, I’m not against it in totality. I am against its use as a language of instruction in Deaf classrooms. (I just didn’t think that it would be as good a punchline if I included all that in the title.) And by ‘Deaf classrooms’, I mean classrooms of students whose first language is a natural sign language, like JSL.
I watch a show called Dr. Wonder’s Workshop on Saturday mornings. I only watch it because it is the first show I’ve ever seen with an all-Deaf cast that uses American Sign Language (ASL). Usually, I’m too busy getting ready for church to pay much full attention, but I sometimes put it on mute so I can practise my sign reception. Yesterday, something happened that brought to mind something my JSL teacher said a couple of years ago (or thereabouts).
Carlo Fagucci, the show’s resident pizza chef was expressing that even though all of us are different, we are all loved by God (or something like that). When he got to the sign for ‘black’, I felt myself frown in confusion. He used the sign for ‘black’ objects, not ‘black’ the ethnicity. I spent at least a second or two trying to understand what was going on before I remembered that ASL uses the same sign for both concepts.
Back when I was in university, my teacher actually used this very example. Signed English (since it’s English) doesn’t make that distinction either. And so a Deaf child watching his Signed English-using teacher talk about ‘black’ people would be confused as to why his teacher used that word… and miss out on what the teacher is saying because of that confusion. And that will happen over and over. And not to mention the structural differences between the two languages and the discord that would ensue then.
I knew that ASL doesn’t make that distinction and I was still confused. Imagine a child, who may not know. Teaching is always more effective when done in the first language of the student.
At the same time, I know that Signed English has its place. Some Deaf do grow up with Signed English, which is perfectly fine, and people who are hard of hearing, yet grew up speaking (like my friend Michal) would definitely benefit from it. My exposure to horror stories regarding Signed English makes me think of the problems involved with it. Too many Deaf have gone through years of school not understanding their teachers.
And that’s not good.