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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Many Ways to Be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf Communities

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The notion of Signed Mandarin was expressed in TSL by a one-handed sign that could be roughly described as placing Chinese characters in space one by one from top to bottom. Because of the way the Chiying deaf people defined the sign for me, I eventually glossed it as SIGNING-THE-CHARACTERS-IN-ORDER.7 TSL signers sometimes rolled their eyes when they mentioned SIGNING-THE-CHARACTERS-IN-ORDER, but they did not seem to resent it. SIGNING-THE-CHARACTERS-IN-ORDER was not positive or negative in an ideological sense. Rather, people’s slight impatience with it had to do with it being “slow” and “tiring.” I rarely saw more than stock phrases expressed in Signed Mandarin among the Chiying signers. The Mandarin phrase “return home” (hùi jīā) was one of these expressions. The Chiying signers signed it with two signs: one that meant “return” and a second that meant “home.” The only other use of Signed Mandarin that I encountered was when the children were taught to perform a signed song. The Chiying deaf people never used SIGNING-THE-CHARACTERS-IN-ORDER with me.

As would be expected, the Chiying deaf people had no understanding of the ASL fingerspelled expression T-S-L. They referred to their way of signing with one another using two different ways. One was a two-handed sign that I glossed as SIGNING-THE-CHARACTERS-OUT-OF-ORDER, based on the way they explained the meaning of the sign to me. I glossed the other as CONDENSE. They considered SIGNING-THE-CHARACTERS-OUT-OF-ORDER to be clear and fast from the standpoint of both production and perception. They did not seem particularly enamored of their language or loyal to it in a philosophical sense. Rather, SIGNING-THE-CHARACTERS-OUT-OF-ORDER was simply the most economical way to communicate and was the agreed-on way in the community.

One might question how much agreement exists with respect to sign use. The Chiying signers could often come up with as many as four to seven signs for the same referent without trouble. In fact, deaf people from both Kaohsiung and Taipei told me that an abundance of synonymous signs was in use.8 Smith (1976, revised 1988) discusses the same phenomenon. The Ministry of Education in Taiwan is aware of the proliferation of local signs throughout Taiwan, and through the years, the government has attempted to standardize TSL. The Chiying deaf people seemed to feel a need for standardization and wanted, at least in principle, to cooperate with the government’s attempts. On several occasions, I observed deaf teachers advise the students to use a sign in one of the sign language manuals compiled by the government rather than a sign the child picked up from one of the teachers.

Perhaps in some deaf communities, hearing people and foreigners would be looked at with some suspicion. I did not perceive this to be the case at the Chiying School. In fact, my circumstances were certainly a language learner’s paradise, although the challenge of communicating with a well-intentioned but foreign guest did affect the conversations that the Chiying deaf people had with me. At some point during my stay there, they began to consider me an actual participant in some conversations, despite my obvious inability to be completely independent in my signed discourse. And often, they seemed to feel a responsibility to include me as much as I wanted to be included. They checked to see whether or not I had understood and were often willing to rephrase what was said in ways they knew I would understand better. Fast and fluent conversation sometimes slowed appreciably on my behalf.

Many deaf people at the school were adept at more than one language and were observant about linguistic matters. For example, after seeing several ASL name signs, including mine, the Chiying deaf signers decided that name signs in ASL often involved the fingerspelled letter that represented the initial. Then, they explained to me that name signs in TSL often referred to physical characteristics of a person such as “eyes that wander” or “tall woman” or “scar on the head” (see Yau and He, 1989, for similar observations about name signs in a school for the deaf in southern China).

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