View Our Catalog

Join Our E-Mail List

What's New

Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

Press Home

Deaf Epistemologies: Multiple Perspectives on the Acquisition of Knowledge
Previous Page

Next Page


Sacks makes these claims without supporting them. In some cases, such claims seem to be motivated by a beneficent liberalism. The thought seems to be that one must claim that all languages are equal, or else one will soon be led to claim that some peoples are better than others, and that from that point fascism is but a small step away. In other cases, the claim that all languages are equal is made by linguists who mean to assert that all languages are equally languages and as such are equally worthy of linguistic study (see, for example, Burns, Matthews, & Nolan-Conroy 2001; Evans, 1998). This may be true, but we should remember that here “equal” is being used in a technical sense. When linguists say that all languages are equal in the sense of all being equally languages, they are moving away from the question of whether all languages are equal as a layperson might pose it. All languages might be equally languages, but the question of whether they are equally good for expressing ideas remains. When one asks whether sign languages are as good as other languages, one wants to know whether one can communicate as many ideas as easily, as precisely, as elegantly, and so on as one can in a spoken language. I argue that, at least in this vernacular sense, plausibly some languages are better than others. There is thus no a priori reason for thinking that sign languages and spoken languages will be equal.

My starting point is that some languages have resources that others do not. Some languages have a written form; others do not. Some have tenses that others lack. In some one can build up complex words easily; in others one cannot. One might hope that benefits will balance out, but a moment’s reflection suggests that there is no reason to expect things to even out. Plausibly one might expect those languages that have been used for the longest time, or by the most people, or in the greatest variety of settings, to end up being better all round at enabling humans to formulate and communicate ideas.

On occasion, linguists say that all languages are equal because they all have the same potential (see, for example, Harlow, 1998). Here the idea seems to be that a group of language users who find themselves with a need that their language cannot currently fulfill will simply add new resources to their language so that it becomes adequate to the task. To take a simple case, suppose a group of language users only have words for the numbers up to 10 but are faced with the necessity of counting 15 cows. Here, the language users may simply invent new words and so expand their language so that it meets their needs. However, although languages clearly can sometimes be expanded, to think that this implies that they are all potentially equal betrays a rather odd view of language use. It suggests that all people are capable of having the same ideas irrespective of their language. The picture is one of people having ideas in some nonlinguistic medium and then searching about for a way to convey these ideas in words. It is more likely that our thoughts are at least shaped, if not determined, by our language. (For a useful introduction on the ways in which language shapes thought, see Devitt and Sterelny, 1999, chap. 10.) Thus, once one learns to make use of the jargon of music theory, for example, one is able to have different thoughts about music, not just able to express more clearly the very same thoughts that one always had. As our language plausibly shapes our thoughts, I suggest that it is not true that all languages are even potentially equal. Language users whose language lacks the resources needed to express a particular range of thoughts are less likely to have those thoughts. Thus, they cannot be relied on to simply expand their language once the thoughts occur to them.

If it is accepted that one language may be better than another in a certain respect, and it is accepted that there is no reason to expect things to even out so that all languages are equally good, then there is no a priori reason to claim that sign languages will be as good as other languages. Rather, working out how the resources of a sign language compare to those of a spoken language will be a matter for empirical research.

There is some research that suggests that sign languages are superior to spoken languages in a variety of ways. Less muscle control is required to make signs than to form the right mouth movements to make phonemes. As a consequence, deaf infants who have been exposed to a sign language from birth can often form the sign for “milk” at four months (Lane et al., 1996, p. 46; Sacks, 1991, p. 30), while their hearing contemporaries can only cry. Harlan Lane claims that sign languages are intrinsically better than oral languages for providing information regarding spatial relations: In a sign language, one can sign so as to show where objects are placed relative to each other (Lane, 1992, pp. 124–125; Lane et al., 1996, pp. 104–111). Some have claimed that the four-dimensional nature of sign languages makes them more expressive than oral languages (Sacks, 1991, pp. 89–90). Others suggest that the iconographic nature of sign languages enables users to think more concretely and thus in many cases more clearly (although there is also resistance to this idea, as some see it as stemming from the notion that sign languages are systems of mime rather than proper languages) (Sacks, 1991, pp. 122–124).

Investigating the net importance of these various factors would take empirical research. I do not know whether sign languages can be expected to be poorer, richer, or the equal to oral languages. The key point is there is no a priori justification for the claim that sign languages are equal to other languages. Sign languages may be relatively impoverished, in which case signers will be restricted in their ability to communicate. On the other hand, sign languages may be richer than oral languages, in which case signers will be at an advantage in these respects.

It is worth emphasizing that having a rich or poor language plausibly affects more than one’s ability to communicate. Having a rich language can enhance one’s ability to think. This means that whether sign languages are rich or poor compared to oral languages will play a huge role in determining whether it can be a good thing to be deaf.

If sign languages turn out to be poorer than oral languages, this will be a disadvantage to being deaf. However, the converse does not follow. If sign languages are richer than oral languages, this is not an advantage to being deaf. Sign language use is not restricted to deaf people, and so if sign languages are rich compared to oral languages this would be a reason for all infants to be taught sign, not a reason for people to remain or become deaf.


Previous Page

Next Page