What is a sign language?
A sign (or signed) language is a visual means of communication, a language that uses complex combinations of hand motions, body movements and facial expressions instead of speaking and hearing.
Signs express whole ideas, just like words in a spoken language. There is often a pictorial resemblance between a sign and the thing it represents, but many signs are completely arbitrary. Some sign languages include manual alphabets used for spelling out proper names or more technical words. While the grammar of spoken language is linear (one idea presented at a time), that of sign languages is spatial, meaning that a number of ideas can be expressed simultaneously, and the relative placement of people and places is depicted directly in the space around the signer.
Why are sign languages needed, and who uses them?
Sign languages have developed in many situations for various purposes, but are the chief means of communication for Deaf people. Because the visual medium is more accessible, sign language became the natural means of communication for Deaf people and they are capable of communicating a full range of meaning like spoken languages do.
Why is the word “Deaf” capitalized? What does that mean?
When capitalized, “Deaf” is not a mere adjective, like ‘tall’ or ‘petite.’ It refers to a unique “nation” or culture among the cultures of the world. Much as someone who was born in Sweden and speaks Swedish as his or her first language is recognized as Swedish, so a person who is physically deaf, uses a sign language as his or her first language, and is part of the Deaf community, is a Deaf person. Deaf people will often gravitate towards other Deaf people regardless of their language or country of origin. Deafness frequently trumps other identity categories.
How many different sign languages are used by Deaf people?
The language database known as the Ethnologue lists 141 sign languages. A more recent informal database shows over 200 live sign languages and there may be more than 400 sign languages when all have been discovered. Generally, they are named after the countries in which their communities reside. There are “Egyptian,” “Cuban” and “Ghanaian” Sign Languages—and so on. Some are specific to regions or cities within the same country. For example, there are “Haiphong” and “Hanoi” Sign Languages within the country of Vietnam. In other cases, totally different sign languages have arisen in different countries that otherwise share the same spoken language—as in British and American Sign Languages.
In other words, there is no correlation between the local/national spoken language and any sign language that may have developed there. Typically, sign languages have no basis in spoken forms of language; they are languages in their own right.
Why do Deaf people need special translations of the Bible in sign languages? Aren’t they able to read in their national or local language? (After all, they are not blind.)
Some Deaf people are able to read written forms of spoken languages; others are not. Overall, literacy levels among Deaf people tend to be much lower than among the general population. Partly this is due to inadequate education in many countries, but also because reading a spoken language is inherently more difficult for someone who has never heard the sounds that the letters represent—almost like memorizing a phone number for each word. Even when Deaf people can read the national language, it is just as much a “foreign” language to them as when an English speaker reads Greek. It is not the language of their heart.
How many of these languages need a translation of the Bible?
No one knows yet. The list of sign languages in the Ethnologue is far from complete, and not all of the sign languages listed there will need translation work. Survey work still needs to be done in many countries to determine the translation need. From what we know now, we can reasonably expect that at least 150 sign languages will need Scripture translation started, but the number could eventually be double that.
I thought Bible translators only worked with printed translations of the Bible, using alphabets. How do you do a “translation” in a sign language?
The translation process for a sign language is similar to the translation process for a spoken language, except that most projects rely heavily on video technology. The translation team will usually have at least one person who is able to read a spoken language. The team will discuss the passage carefully to make sure they understand it, including background information about key terms, people, places, and culture. If the passage is available in another sign language, the team may watch and discuss it. They may use a storyboard as a memory aid to visually summarize the passage, or a rough transcription using words in a spoken language to represent the signs, or even a writing system designed for sign languages. Then they try different ways to sign the passage and video the best version. They critique the result, revising and re-filming as necessary. A translation consultant works with them to make sure the translation accurately reflects the meaning of the original, and they also test the passage with members of the community to make sure the translation communicates clearly and accurately to people without previous knowledge of the Bible.
What does the finished product look like? Is it something you can see and touch?
Sign language Scripture videos are distributed via SD cards or DVDs, or can be downloaded from the internet. Deaf Bible Society has developed an app for viewing Scripture videos on cell phones or tablets. The Asia Pacific Sign Language Development Association (APSDA) has developed a similar app that includes a video-notetaking tool, useful for preparation by Deaf pastors or Deaf Bible study leaders, who can record notes about Scripture texts in sign language right in the app.
While 3D animation is an exciting new technology that can be very helpful for sign language translations, there are still some hurdles to be overcome in terms of cost, ease of use, and the ability of 3D animation to capture all the relevant details of a signer so that it looks natural.
Who is involved with this work?
Deaf Bible Society works with various ministries to offer the global Deaf community access to the Bible in their native sign languages. The four pillars of Deaf Bible Society are Deaf Awareness, Education, Access and Funding for sign language Bibles. Deaf Bible Society provides technology and resources for establishing community-based Bible engagement programs called Deaf Bible Together.
DOOR International exists to minister specifically to Deaf communities worldwide. DOOR runs Deaf Christian leadership training programs and, since 2006, has been working with several other organizations to create signed translations of the Bible.
Asia Pacific Sign Language Development Association (APSDA) is an international, Deaf-led sign language Bible translation and language advocacy organization that is comprised of 15 member organizations working throughout Asia and the Pacific.
Deaf Missions seeks to communicate the gospel to Deaf people through training, outreach activities, and visual Bible materials, including ongoing translation of the Bible into American Sign Language.
SIL International’s Global Sign Languages Team works closely with partners around the world in the areas of training, translation consulting, software development, project facilitation, and project funding for sign language translation projects.
For leads on additional information, see the Helpful links section below.
What specialized training would I need to get involved? Where can I get this training?
This varies, depending on what exact role you might fulfill—as a surveyor, linguist, translator, or project facilitator. In general, it helps to know or have some ability in at least one natural sign language. New workers considering service with SIL’s Global Sign Languages Team need to complete an internship on the field. Once the internship is completed, additional linguistics training or specialized training for your particular role will be determined. Much of this training is provided by SIL International at one of its linguistics schools: SIL-UND (see link below). For information on internships and preparation for sign language work, contact [firstname.lastname@example.org].
- Deaf Bible Society (provides resources for access to sign language Bibles).
- DOOR International (non-denominational Christian mission organization of and for Deaf people).
- Deaf Missions (Deaf evangelistic organization, translating the Bible into American Sign Language).
- SIL International (Sign Languages).
- Deaf Scripture on the web.
- Wikipedia (more extensive treatment of Deaf culture and sign languages): Deaf Culture; Sign Language
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