Sign Languages

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 [sign_​languages_​intl@​sil.​org].

Helpful links:

  • 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 CultureSign Language

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