Signs of Change

by Alexsis Johnson:

When Elizabeth Hurd was trapped in a Hamburg train station in 2006 during a riot of soccer fans after a game, people around her were pushing and yelling, but she could not hear a sound. Hurd, a student at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., is deaf, as were her fellow travelers. As the crowd grew more violent, Hurd’s group ran into complications. “A policeman came to me and commanded me to go to the train, and I tried to say no in German, but he didn’t understand me and I couldn’t communicate with him,” she said in an e-mail interview. Hurd and her friends ended up safe that night, but Hurd realized it would be difficult to prevent such situations in the future. “That encounter made me realize that we should have had an interpreter to inform us of what was going on, but there was a lack of availability of international interpreters.”

Even if the policeman Hurd encountered had been able to sign, the two may have not been able to communicate. Each nation usually has its own distinct sign language, and American Sign Language and German Sign Language may not be mutually comprehensible. Sign language is often overlooked in the today’s debates over the loss of language diversity around the world, yet it is an area in which there is a concerted effort to eliminate the type of linguistic differences others are scrambling to maintain in spoken languages. In 1973, the World Federation of the Deaf created Gestuno, a collection of 1,500 standardized international gestures. But while Gestuno is used at the World Games for the Deaf, it is only signed by a few, making it an impractical tool for Hurd abroad.

Not only is there no effective international sign language, but also, sign language interpreters are few and far between—the bigger problem, in Hurd’s opinion. “[Sign] languages are based on cultures and their customs,” Hurd explained. “I would like to have international interpreters rather than have a new international sign language, because every different culture is unique and should keep its own sign language.”

Jami Fisher, the American Sign Language program coordinator and a lecturer in Foreign Languages at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees with Hurd, but for technical reasons. “Developing a linguistically complete signed language would go against the natural tendencies of language development, whether it be signed or spoken,” said Fisher. Fisher would know: The University of Pennsylvania has the largest American Sign Language program in the Ivy League. The program serves around 120-150 students each semester.

American Sign Language is the only sign language taught at the University of Pennsylvania; however, the school does encourage the pursuit of learning other sign languages. The university recently established a fellowship with the Siena School in Siena, Italy. Through the fellowship, students from the University of Pennsylvania travel to Italy to study spoken Italian, Italian Deaf Culture, and Italian Sign Language.
Fisher has had very positive experiences learning other sign languages. “I am not deaf, but I am a native speaker of ASL,” she explained. “My parents and one brother are deaf, and I must say that when I went to the Siena School, I was amazed at the ease in which I picked up LIS. I was able to have pretty detailed conversations within a period of days.”

Though her positive outlook is contagious, Fisher’s ability to quickly pick up new languages may not be so widespread. Many people find it difficult to adjust to the different grammatical challenges of sign language, and as with any language, the overall ability to learn and retain new languages decreases with age.

Seventeen-year-old Jamie Routledge of Nova Scotia, Canada had similar troubles communicating through sign language overseas. Routledge traveled to Argentina with her Canada Deaf Women’s Volleyball Team for the World Championships. “The Argentineans were using Spanish sign language, so it was difficult for all of us to try to communicate with them,” she recalled.  Yet despite Routledge’s difficulties communicating abroad, she also supports maintaining separate national sign languages. “One half of me wants to go ahead with [an international sign language] so that all of us can communicate better, better than we could in Argentina,” Routledge explained. “But then the other half of me doesn’t agree, because it would not cause us to learn about their culture better…We would lose our special culture of language and deaf culture.”

In addition to varying among countries, sign languages can vary from region to region. “We Canadians have our own culture, and even each province has a somewhat different sign language,” said Routledge. “Quebec, Canada, has its own language, and I travel to Montreal to train there for volleyball and their language and our language clash.” Routledge hopes that this enormous cultural diversity among sign languages will be preserved, while the training of international sign interpreters allows mobility and access.

Unfortunately, this training is time-consuming and intensive. Since sign language is different in every country, an interpreter would have to be fluent in a foreign spoken language as well as in American Sign Language—a language entirely distinct from many others—in order to be of any use. After learning multiple languages, interpreters must train and register with the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Many interpreters work other jobs to supplement their inconsistent income, making the profession somewhat less appealing than other more constant careers.

While the unique national character tied to each individual sign language is irreplaceable, more interpreters are necessary to help deaf travelers navigate those differences and experience the cultures embodied in different signs. In a world where international travel is increasingly expected professionally and coveted socially, it is hard for the deaf community to keep up. Rather than concentrate on developing an international sign language to be used in certain settings, the focus should be on training interpreters to help deaf individuals travel with freedom and safety. Experiences like Hurd’s in Germany  indicate that there  is no quick solution to accommodating the global deaf community. Though they may be silent, the growing number of travelers with similar stories is a sign that it is time for a change.

Alexsis Johnson is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College.