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Catalan Sign Language: Frequent Misunderstandings

This article discusses prejudices and frequent erroneous ideas about sign languages, with particular focus on Catalan Sign Language.
© Universitat Pompeu Fabra

There are many misunderstandings about Catalan Sign Language and sign languages in general. Below, we address a selection of them:

1. Sign language is a universal language

False. There are more than 140 documented sign languages.

“It is quite surprising to some that no one has decided to impose a single sign language on all deaf people in the world. Aside from the questionable moral issues raised by such a decision and the insurmountable obstacles a policy of this kind would present, the real answer is that, just as we are obliged to respect the linguistic identity of a person or a community and to preserve the linguistic richness of spoken languages, we must also respect the identity of signers and preserve the, already much weakened, heritage of the world’s sign languages. And just as English is not taught as a mother tongue in Catalan schools (not to mention Esperanto, which is an artificial language), we cannot artificially impose a language on anyone.” Quer, 2005

2. Sign languages are located in the parts of the brain responsible for language

True. Despite being gestural languages they are located in the parts of the brain responsible for language.
“One of the most interesting findings of recent research in neurolinguistics is that signers presented with a linguistic stimulus in sign language show cortical activation in the same areas of the left hemisphere as someone processing a spoken phrase. It is true that activation of regions of the right hemisphere have also been observed in signers, but that comes as no surprise considering the gestural-visual modality used to produce and receive a sign language.” Quer, 2004

3. Sign languages use complementary resources from spoken languages

True. These include speechreading, the sign supported speech system and fingerspelling.
“For obvious reasons, however, signers systematically enter into contact with the spoken language of their immediate surroundings and become, to greater or lesser extents, bilingual (and bimodal, meaning they are competent in two different linguistic modalities). If there is contact between the two, a dominant language will always influence the minority language. A clear example is, for instance, the use of fingerspelling (or dactylology) to spell words from the spoken language when their corresponding sign does not exist or when an ambiguous concept needs clarifying. In actual fact, the finger alphabet is not a sign language: it is a system of representing the written language, another secondary system of representing spoken language. Nevertheless, it has influenced the lexicon of sign languages, which contain items in which signs incorporate one or more letters from the spoken word that corresponds to the concept being expressed. The influence of the spoken language is not limited to this, as, for example, the form of some signs is accompanied by the complete or truncated coarticulation of the spoken word that corresponds to the sign, a coarticulation that is often restricted to lip movements, without using the voice. These influences, however, should not lead us to the erroneous idea that sign languages are derived from spoken languages, but rather that they are the natural fruit of a situation in which there is contact between languages and forced bilingualism.” Quer, 2005

4. Catalonia has two official sign languages: Catalan Sign Language (LSC) and Spanish Sign Language (LSE)

False. Catalonia’s only sign language is LSC. Catalonia is monolingual in terms of sign language. The situation of bilingualism of the oral languages spoken in Catalonia (between Catalan and Spanish) does not exist regarding sign language. People using sign language in Catalonia use Catalan Sign Language as a means of communication.

5. All English-speaking countries use the same sign language

False. As a minimum we can identify American SL (ASL), British SL (BSL), Irish SL (ISL), Australian SL (AUSLAN) and New Zealand SL (NZ).

6. The linguistic study of sign languages is relatively new

“It wasn’t until 1960, with the publication of the pioneering work, Sign Language Structure by the American linguist William C. Stokoe, that a systematic attempt was made to analyse languages with a gestural-visual modality using the tools of modern linguistics. Until that time, sign languages had often been characterised as fairly sophisticated and conventionalised miming or as developments of ordinary gestures using the conventions of spoken language, an opinion expressed by Bloomfield (1933), for example. With Stokoe’s work and his subsequent dictionary, A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles (1965), and with the central work of Klima & Bellugi (1979) The Signs of Language, sign languages found a definitive place as a branch of linguistics. Despite initial efforts stemming from the study of ASL, from the 1980s onwards other languages from Northwestern Europe began to be incorporated. Over the course of the years the number of languages we have some kind of linguistic information about has increased, although there is still an overwhelming amount of descriptive work to be done, even in languages that have been under study for several years now.” Quer, 2004

7. Sign languages are natural languages

True. They are natural languages, as they arise naturally from a communication need in deaf babies.
“Sign languages are the languages of deaf communities. They are not communication systems that have been invented ad hoc, but rather arise as natural languages when there is a large enough group of signers. Historically, these situations have only arisen when deaf people have formed associations and established a social network. They have also arisen thanks to the existence of residential schools or normal schools for deaf children. In the western world, it is only in the last two or three hundred years at most that these conditions have been established.” Quer, 2005

8. There is an international sign system, which is used as a second sign language all over the world

False. It is true that there is an international sign system, but its use is limited solely to scientific congresses and meetings.
“In the absence of a sign language used as a lingua franca, the World Federation of the Deaf promoted the development of a kind of pidgin that is used for communication between signers of different languages. This pidgin, which today is known as International Sign (IS), essentially consists of an agreed lexical group of signs, but has no supporting grammar. This is why it is understood to be a system more than a language. In practice, each signer signs using the grammar from their own language. Furthermore, referring to IS as a stable code is an abstract concept, as it varies considerably in each interactive context, depending on the signers involved, their familiarity with this kind of contact and their adaptability.” Quer, 2005

9. Sign languages are derived from spoken languages

False. It is a great misunderstanding to assume that sign languages are “derived” in some way from spoken languages. One example: British SL (BSL) and American SL (ASL) are completely different languages, each unintelligible to signers of the other, and have no historical connection.

10. Sign languages have no writing system

“Because of the way they are expressed and perceived, sign languages have no generalised writing system (they can be transcribed for research purposes, but this is different to writing them). Consequently, there is very little historical documentation in sign if we compare with what is available for spoken languages, which have centuries-old writing traditions. The audiovisual technology, which today may seem a trivial way of recording sign languages, did not even begin to be accessible until the late the 1970s at the end of the last century. Before that, references are essentially anecdotal and recorded in prose or drawn representations of sign which offer us not even a mildly comprehensive idea of what the languages were like.” Quer, 2005

11. There are sign language families

True. For example, derived from Old French Sign Language are: French SL, American SL, Catalan SL, Spanish SL, Dutch SL, Quebec SL, Irish SL and Flemish SL.

Quotations to Quer, 2004 and Quer, 2005 are the following texts (both in Catalan):

Quer, Josep (2004). Les llengües de signes com a llengües naturals. In Les fronteres del llenguatge: Lingüística i comunicació no verbal (p. 189-206). Barcelona: Promociones y Publicaciones Universitarias.

Quer, Josep (2005). Les llengües de signes, les més inaudibles. In C. Junyent (ed.), Les llengües a Catalunya (p. 75-85) Barcelona: Octaedro.

If you want to know more, we suggest you to explore LSC for all, in the web page of LSC Lab, Laboratori de Llengua de Signes Catalana. Versions in English, Catalan and Spanish available.

© Universitat Pompeu Fabra
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Introduction to Catalan Sign Language: Speaking with Your Hands and Hearing with Your Eyes

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