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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Sign Languages in Contact

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As with all sociolinguistic studies of sign languages, one must remember that the vast majority of users were not exposed to signed language as infants or young children. In the United States the likelihood that a deaf child will have deaf parents is roughly 4 to 8 percent (Mitchell and Karchmer 2004), and those are the children who are generally exposed to ASL from birth. Whether similar percentages of native deaf signers exist in other countries with Deaf communities — either emerging or established — is unclear, although Karin Hoyer’s chapter in the present volume suggests that it is certainly not the case for Albania.

Another point has to do with the role of education and/or foreign assistance in the development of sign languages. In various Deaf communities throughout the world, the indigenous sign language or visual-gestural system of a community has been influenced by foreigners who, often with the best of intentions, have brought their ability to communicate in sign. Having collected data in Mexico, I know firsthand the challenges of trying to communicate with a user of another sign language without using the one with which I am more comfortable. Regardless of whether one does it intentionally, it is possible that a foreigner will introduce new elements into a sign language. Woll, Sutton-Spence, and Elton (2001) claim that education is a common domain for this type of influence, and they touch upon the influence of Gallaudet University and its students as vessels of such impact. The influence of foreign signing visitors upon a Deaf community is perhaps more common than we imagine, and this is the very type of situation that Hoyer describes in her chapter in this volume.

Karin Hoyer examines the case of Albanian Sign Language and its growth from pre- to post-Communist Albania. She suggests that the Hoxha regime did not allow for the development of a community of deaf people who could create a full-fledged sign language over time. Hoyer suggests, rather, that in predemocratic Albania, deaf people relied heavily on fingerspelling, with a few indigenous signs that may have been influenced largely by the emblematic gestures of the ambient hearing culture. After contact with other Deaf communities through International Sign (and perhaps other sign languages), the sign system of Albanian Deaf people became lexically richer. Hoyer also states that the use of the new signs (now referred to as Albanian Sign Language or AlbSL) occurs mostly within the social spheres of urban males in Albania, while females in rural areas are the least likely to be using AlbSL.

Jean Ann, in collaboration with Wayne H. Smith and Chiangsheng Yu, provides us with another interesting situation in this volume. They show us that, in a specific context, a variety of a sign language can spring up quickly but later disappear if the sociolinguistic environment is not strong enough to support it. Specifically, Ann et al. write about a deaf education setting in Taiwan and the use of Mainland China Sign Language (MCSL) by instructors and students at the Ch’iying School for the Deaf in southern Taiwan. That school has an interesting history: It was established by a deaf man from Mainland China in the 1960s, and the language of instruction for fifteen to twenty years was a variety of MCSL. However, the school closed in the early 2000s. This situation is particularly noteworthy because the Ch’iying signers, upon leaving school after the sixth grade, had to learn Taiwan Sign Language (TSL) in order to interact with other deaf people in Taiwan. One of the authors’ goals was to determine whether the MCSL of the Ch’iying signers had any recognizable effects on TSL. In addition to providing the reader with a rich history of the establishment and various facets of the Ch’iying school, Ann et al. present excerpts of Smith’s unpublished writings on the Taiwanese school and other historical accounts of TSL.

A FEW FINAL WORDS

There is much to be learned by studying contact in the visual-gestural modality. Although research on certain aspects of this topic has been occurring for years, the present volume adds examples and data from sign language communities around the world that are affected by their interaction with other sign languages. This area of inquiry is ripe for study.

One of the challenges of creating a book-length treatment of this complex topic is that there is a dearth of published materials on which to build. As a result, the reader will notice that various authors throughout this volume rely on information that has been obtained via personal communication with colleagues, other professionals, and members of the Deaf communities in which they work. The reporting of this type of information is vital to the documentation of contact phenomena, and that documentation must begin somewhere. In the future, more systematic reports are needed. My hope is that this book will encourage researchers to undertake some of that investigation.

This volume only scratches the surface of the multifaceted topic of language contact in the signed modality. We can learn much about the human capacity for language by studying this topic, and we do not need to look far to find examples of such contact. Further research in this area will add to the wealth of knowledge that we have already gained by studying languages that are produced without sound.


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