Why I’m Against Signed English

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.

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13 Responses to Why I’m Against Signed English

  1. Richie says:

    Everybody’s entitled to an opinion. I grew up with Signed English. At the same time, I was speaking English despite my profound deafness and it was Signed English that helped me understand the words that were being spoken to me. I never could wear hearing aids since I had absolutely zero hearing. It is difficult for foreigners and deaf people alike to master the nuances of the English language. There are words with more than one definition: make a right, it is my right, I am right. And there’s the matter of pronunciation, steak and stake sounds the same. Yet, hearing people do not get confused by it. If hearing people don’t get confused, nor should we. We do not need something that’s been simplified to help us understand.


    • kenliano says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. It’s not a matter of ‘simplified’, though, but a matter first language. I mean, you grew up with Signed English, so you would understand it. But other Deaf didn’t.

      It’s like in Jamaican hearing schools. Many children grow up with Jamaican Patois and are monolingual. And then they go to school with teachers using English to teach them. So, often the children are confused. The language of instruction should be the first language. It’s more effective. For Deaf students who know JSL, you can use Signed English as a second language, the same way people teach Spanish in schools.


      • Richie says:

        Reading and writing in English requires the phonetic understanding of the language. It is very difficult to do that with ASL. That is why the majority of deaf people cannot read and write English. The average high school graduate is in the 4th grade level.

        Going from ASL to Signed English, the English part is very rarely correct so that person is still signing in ASL or broken English. Going from Signed English to ASL was pretty easy for me since ASL does not have the language foundation that is found in others. In fact, I can Spanish mainly due to my ability to speak English. If I was raised using ASL, I cannot imagine reading and writing in Spanish.


      • kenliano says:

        Hmm; I don’t understand what you’re suggesting here. Are you saying that the child should not grow up learning ASL or other Natural Sign Languages at all? If so, that is pretty much impossible. (I was talking about hearing Israelis, by the way; and I’m sure they would learn Hebrew, not English, in schools.)

        If my research is correct, then teachers of Deaf in America tend to use Signed English, too. For me, there’s no wonder that the Deaf never learn English in that environment. It’s not proper ‘immersion’, it’s just teachers using a foreign language to teach a foreign language. When you learnt Spanish, did you learn it through the people using Spanish, or through the people explaining to you in your own language?

        I don’t agree that Sign Language lacks the foundation that one needs to learn spoken language. Yes, ASL is different from most WESTERN languages, but it has things in common with Hebrew and Japanese that would make it compatible with those languages. If someone is being taught a language, the foundation needs to be established or the person won’t learn the language. Using Signed English exclusively in a class of ASL-users will not go very far. And I know that from the testimonies of other deaf people, like you. Well, Deaf people.


      • Richie says:

        Israelis are usually trilingual but the vast majority are bilingual with all knowing Hebrew and English. I have been there. I met deaf Israelis and a lot did speak English, required by school.

        Teachers of deaf in America mostly use ASL, not Signed English. The “Bi-Bi” approach mandates the use of ASL. Illiteracy remains stubbornly high. I was not raised using ASL and that is the very reason I am perfectly capable of reading and writing in English. My classmates used SEE and all are highly successful. Funding for that program dried up in the early 1990’s so it was back to ASL and illiteracy.

        I learned Spanish because my mother’s native language is Spanish. I would not have been able to learn Spanish had I not spoken English.

        The sign language for “scared” is the same as afraid, horrified, startled, terrified, fearful, frightened, etc. All of these words have slightly different definitions. Also, there are a lot of words there is no sign language for such as oxygen, maroon, craft, flesh, escalator, anchor, etc. If I wanted to say, “He was unaware of the potential ramifications,” it would be signed “He did not know what could happen.” Very simple words are used since there’s no sign for consequences, ramifications or implications.

        A deaf child is perfectly capable of using Signed English which can help with literacy and eventual job opportunities. Unemployment is high because many simply cannot read.


    • kenliano says:

      I agree that there are problems with using a non-English language in an English-using society. But that doesn’t negate the idea that the language of teaching should be the native language of the student, as much as possible. Many Deaf already grow up using ASL/JSL/the Natural Sign Language of their community. I do agree that Signed English is good to learn, but teaching in Signed English when your students are using a natural sign language will not get you far.

      If American Deaf schools are similar to Jamaican Deaf schools, then the problem is that they teach using Signed English instead of TEACHING Signed English (and the other subjects) using the natural Sign Language, ASL. If people in Israel grow up learning English in schools, then Deaf people can grow up learning English in schools.

      Teaching IN Signed English assumes that the child understands the rules of English. Teaching in the NATURAL Sign Language means assuming child knows that language and so you approach English as a second language. It also helps for them to understand the rules of their own language. Learning syntax, etc. of another language while not knowing that of your own can sometimes be confusing (speaking from experience).

      As I said, this approach is only for Deaf who grew up with a Natural Sign Language. If you grow up with Signed English, that’s your native language and it would make sense for to learn in Signed English. Understand?


      • Richie says:

        The crux is “native” language. We can keep their language intact but they will not prosper. I am a proposal writer, therefore I use English in order to write. I can keep using ASL but that will not get me very far when it comes to opportunities.

        And deaf people in Israel do learn English in schools, not sign language.

        And you are correct, teaching in signed English relies on the assumption the child understands the rules of English. After all, that is the language they should be learning in the first place. Although English is my primary language, I speak both Spanish and English. I do not know LSM or LSE (Mexican or Spanish sign language) as my family saw no need for me to learn sign language.

        Sign language in essence lacks the foundation essential for language development. I cannot fathom the idea of migrating from sign language to spoken English. I am speaking from experience as a profoundly deaf person.


    • kenliano says:

      Honestly, I don’t see that example (‘potential ramifications’ vs. ‘did not know what would happen’) as a matter of simplicity vs. complexities, but as a matter of lexicon and language structure. That and the English words that are associated with the signs. My JSL teacher associates the sign ‘private’ with the word ‘confidential’, a word that isn’t ‘simple’. ASL is used as a social language, not really an academic one. Signs for academic use can be developed and I believe they should be. I will have to take your statistics at your word, and I do see how Signed English use in the classroom would be beneficial. My point was not that it shouldn’t be used AT ALL. My point was that the native language of the student should be used to lay the foundation. It makes no sense to use a language the student doesn’t know and expect him/her to learn. That happens here in Jamaica all the time, among hearing and Deaf.

      I’m still not sure what you are suggesting, actually. Are you saying that the teachers should use SEE or other Signed English regardless of the native language of the student? At the very least, I think that if the student does NOT know SEE, it should be taught to that student in their own language, which would still fit in with my concept. If the student is was raised learning ASL, are you saying that he should be tossed into a Signed English classroom? I can’t imagine that being effective… Imagining myself in a room where all my friends speak only English and the teacher uses French to teach us biology, mathematics, history, and even the French language… that doesn’t seem very effective to in my mind.


      • Richie says:

        “Potential ramifications” would not be understood by the vast majority of the deaf people. Private and confidential is roughly similar in definition so there is one sign for it but both words can be different. The meeting is private (meaning other people stays out) or the meeting is confidential (meaning nobody discusses the meeting afterwards). You can say it is a private club but not a confidential club which is confusing for deaf people. Still, both are common words. Repercussions and ramifications are words understood by hearing people, not by the deaf people since it is not in their vocabulary.

        ASL is being used as an academic language in elementary schools and high schools alike. There is a big push for it and it has been a failure so far. Test results from the supposedly top schools for the deaf in the U.S. using ASL are dismal.

        If I can be taught in English, I can call English my “natural language.” There is no such thing as “natural language” for the deaf people. There’s ASL, Signing English, PSE, Cued Speech, and more. All are content with their upbringing.

        Since more deaf Americans are being raised with ASL, literacy has declined. If everybody else is speaking English, why cannot the deaf people also learn how to read and write in English? It is far more effective that way and I’m an example of that.


    • kenliano says:

      A “natural” sign language is just a language that came about “naturally” as opposed to an “artificial” sign language, which was created. Signed English is an artificial sign language. If you know of Esperanto, it is an artificial spoken language. “Natural” is not the same as “native”; an artificial language can be someone’s native language if they grew up with it.

      Well, my answer to your question, “If everybody else is speaking English, why cannot the deaf people also learn how to read and write in English?” is that you answered the question yourself. “Everybody else is speaking English.” Try to imagine this. You are in a classroom with all your friends who use SEE. A teacher comes in using Israeli Sign Language. Or British Sign Language. Or even a sign language that uses some of SEE’s signs with completely different sentence structure and sometimes to mean different things. How much would you be learning?

      Using SEE is fine once the foundation has been laid in their own native language. That’s all I’m saying. It makes no sense to use a language people don’t understand to tell them something.


      • Richie says:

        English is natural to me. I’m happy with English. I am a native English signer and I really do not mind if ASL signers prefer to call theirs natural while they call mine artificial. I simply laugh at them since I am the one with a job writing proposals. I would not want ASL as my first language. I would not have had a job as a proposal writer without English. Would an Italian speaker get a writing job in an English-speaking country? The answer is no.

        Back in 1970, ASL was much more structured or “artificial” according to your definition. As illiteracy rose, ASL began to deviate further and further away from the English language. Deaf people rarely interact with hearing people so ASL has become more independent from English. It is not a “natural” language, it is more of a distorted version of English. After all, ASL uses English words. Deaf people are thinking in English words when they sign words.

        Words in SEE are different, we use the first letter of every word.. “a”fraid, “s”cared, “t”errified, “f”rightened. Consequently, we understand the intricate part of English and enjoy a higher literacy rate. We don’t get confused easily unlike most deaf people who have been denied the privilege of learning English in the first place. I would not learn much from a person using a different sign language. You mentioned “completely different sentence structure” – I would simply not be learning as much.

        ASL is a very simplified version of English. It used to have structure but as time went by, it has gotten simpler. I have seen 1950’s film from Gallaudet College and deaf people definitely signed in English back then.


    • kenliano says:

      🙂 Okay, Richie. “Natural” and “artificial” are terms in linguistics. SEE can easily become a natural sign language if it ‘evolves’ like ASL and JSL has. It’s not a way of saying SEE is any less real or important than natural sign languages. It’s just a class of language like “Semitic”, “Germanic”, “Creole”,, etc.

      Thanks very much for your input.


  2. Richie says:

    er, can speak Spanish.. sorry for the typo.


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