“I know sign language!!!”

I have a pet peeve. Okay, those who regularly read this blog would know that I have quite a list of pet peeves, but let’s focus on one for the time being. 🙂

Since I started learning JSL, I’ve come to realise that there’s a specific category of hearing people. These people learnt some signs from church, or some school club, or to perform at an event. And based on this exposure, they state with confidence, “I know sign language.” Some would even go on to say, “Yes, Jamaican Sign Language!”

Often, this… is just not the case…

Yes, please. I'm all ears.

Yes, please. I’m all ears.

The people who spend their time fingerspelling everything aside, many of these people are indeed quite fluent signers. They just don’t know sign language. What they do know is a codified form of spoken language, which, in the Jamaican context, would be Signed English (or, the more technical term, which is Signing Exact English).

Someone I know who had been interpreting church services for years once told me that a Deaf person told them that the others in the congregation did not understand what had been interpreted. This interpreter had been using Signed English, not JSL, the natural language of the Deaf community. JSL has a very different structure as compared to English, and it uses different signs than SEE. (If, for example, you sign the pronoun “I” by putting the JSL letter “I” at your chest like this, then chances are you’re not using JSL.) Even a fluent SEE user will go to socialise with Deaf and often be unable to have more than very basic communication.

If it were just a matter of them deluding themselves, I wouldn’t mind much. But it doesn’t end there. People take it upon themselves to declare their exceptional JSL prowess in large gatherings, and (formal) setting in which there is the need for an interpreter for the Deaf. And they do absolute bullshi… um… They do a horrible job. I’ve heard of some of them even inventing signs as they go along!

Remember the interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral? Well, I won’t pass judgement on whether he was actually qualified, or whether he really was having a schizophrenic episode, as he claimed, when he signed all that nonsense, but similar things happen here all the time. Why do people get away with that?! (For a spoken language representation, check out this video. It’s funny, but imagine if it happened to you.)

And, recently, I happened upon someone at a Deaf event who, when we last spoke, asserted, “I already know sign language, I don’t need to go to any class!” Lo and behold, this person spoke to communicate with Deaf people on at least one occasion (“Yu kyan gwaan.” | “You can go now.”) as if they could hear, didn’t even lift a single finger to make even one sign, and messed up some things that would have gone very smoothly if this person actually had known JSL.

I don’t claim to be an expert, and I would be the first to tell you that. I just believe that, out of respect for the language, and the people who use it, this kind of thing should not happen. And the fact that it does really irritates me.

Enough said.

Enough said.

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