Tag: sign language


Mar 2009

Korean Update

I while back I announced I was studying Korean, and since then I’ve had quite a few inquiries as to how it’s going. So let me make an official update: it’s not going. Yeah, that whole Korean study didn’t last too long.

Why not? Well, it turns out my reasons for studying Korean weren’t very good in the first place. A quick recap of why I decided to study Korean:

1. Korean looks cool.
2. Korean writing is phonetic.
3. I’ve already got a good foundation in 2 of 3 major East Asian languages down (might as well go for the East Asian Linguistic Trilogy).
4. It’s easy to do in China.

Just in case these reasons don’t strike you as entirely stupid, I’ll add a few incisive questions into the mix:

1. Do you need to learn Korean? Not at all.

2. Do you have plans to go to Korea? No, not really. Been there once, and it was nice, but I’m not itching to go back.

3. Do you have a love of Korean culture? TV dramas, maybe? No, not really.

4. Do you have many Korean friends that you could practice with? No.

5. Is learning Korean related to any other long-term goals you might have? No, not at all.

Hmmm, OK, I think that’s probably enough. So I basically had no compelling reason to learn Korean, and I gave it a shot anyway. It lasted 2-3 months, I learned a bit about the language, and it was fun. No regrets.

But I did learn a thing or two about motivation for language learning. Having a need or a use for the language you’re learning is important. This doesn’t mean that you should choose only super practical languages (Spanish, anyone?), but it does mean that trying to pick up a random language just because it’s kind of interesting probably won’t work. You need stronger motivation.

Aside from motivation, you need occasion to practice the new language. The opportunities for practice and the motivation for learning feed on each other. When you have both, they nurture each other. When you’re missing one, the other easily withers.

As it turns out, I had neither for Korean. I have both for Shanghai sign language, and it’s going really well. I’ll be writing more about that soon.


May 2008

Sign Language Expression VS Chinese Culture

I got several comments on the Deaf, Not Dumb post (one comment actually on the site) relating to Alice‘s facial expressions. The observation was that Alice seems to be much more expressive when she signs than the average Chinese person is during conversation.

I can understand this point. I remember when I first arrived in China and was still learning to communicate in Chinese, I was often told, “你的表情丰富” (your [facial] expressions are very “rich”), in other words, “your face is so expressive when you talk.” I may have been exaggerating my expressions a bit to make up for lacking linguistic ability, but I remember once trying to coach a Chinese friend into being more expressive, trying to get her to raise her eyebrows more, etc., to which she responded, “I can’t. I’m Chinese.” Of course that response is somewhat ridiculous, but clearly there are different cultural norms at work.

When it comes to sign language, facial expression is an integral part of communication. According to Wikipedia:

> In linguistic terms, sign languages are as rich and complex as any oral language, despite the common misconception that they are not “real languages”. Professional linguists have studied many sign languages and found them to have every linguistic component required to be classed as true languages.

> […]

> Sign languages, like oral languages, organize elementary, meaningless units (phonemes; once called cheremes in the case of sign languages) into meaningful semantic units. The elements of a sign are Handshape (or Handform), Orientation (or Palm Orientation), Location (or Place of Articulation), Movement, and Non-manual markers (or Facial Expression), summarised in the acronym HOLME.

So, basically, when Chinese culture (less emphasis on facial expression) duked it out with the key elements of sign language (HOLME), Chinese culture had to give.

I think it’s fair to compare facial expression in sign language with sentence intonation in speech. You can still communicate if you’re bad at it, and some students might even think it’s unimportant, but the reality is that it’s essential for natural, native-like communication.

This difference in the role of facial expression can be hard to get used to for students of sign language. As I understand it, the Deaf sometimes chide hearing students of sign language with the remark, “you talk like a robot.”

UPDATE: Alice tells me she has actually been criticized by other Deaf people for being too expressive (especially as a woman) when communicating. Interesting…


Apr 2008

Deaf, not Dumb: Chinese Sign Language

It’s been a while since I last wrote about sign language, but some interesting YouTube videos by Alice (胡晓姝) recently pulled me back into it.

Below is the video that I found most fascinating. It’s subtitled in Chinese, but worth a watch even if you don’t read Chinese. I’ll sum up the main points in English below the video.

Before I list Alice’s main points, I need to first explain some background. In the video, Alice discusses the Chinese sign language counterparts of the Chinese words 聋哑人 (literally, “deaf mute person”) and 聋人 (“Deaf person”). The former is the most common way to refer to a Deaf person in Chinese, whereas the latter is the word many in the Chinese Deaf community wishes everyone would use. 哑巴 is the word for “mute,” and it’s definitely not polite.

Alice’s main points are:

– The Deaf Chinese are used to using signs for “deaf-mute” (聋哑人) and “mute” (哑巴) but these signs are not respectful to Deaf people.
– Overseas, Deaf communities stopped using the expression “deaf-mute” 20 years ago, and only China persists.
– It was foreigners that appreciated that within the character for deaf, “,” is the character , meaning “dragon,” a traditional mythological protector being. That’s pretty cool!
– The traditional Chinese sign for “deaf-mute” (聋哑人) is loaded with negative connotations, but there is an international symbol for for “Deaf person” (聋人) that we should be using.
– The word “deaf-mute” (聋哑人) should also be rejected because “deaf” and “mute” are two separate concepts; deaf does not have to mean unable to speak, and being unable to speak does not mean one must be deaf.
– Some Deaf people believe basic, improvised signs are lowly and spoil the aesthetics of the language. This is wrong, because sign language is the language of the Deaf, developed by the Deaf, with its own grammar and special characteristics.
– There are two kinds of sign language: literary sign language (文法手语), used to reflect mainstream written language, and natural sign language (自然手语), the everyday language of the Deaf.
– Deaf people are not handicapped people (残疾人). We have our own culture and language. Let’s unite and improve ourselves.
– The Chinese Deaf community needs to be bolder, to candidly discuss issues and to struggle together.
– Remember, it’s 聋人, not 聋哑人. Spread the word: 聋人.

I have to say, this video fascinated me. There’s so much there, linguistically (not to mention that it was filmed next to a sushi conveyor belt, which is just damn cool). I think you can tell when a gifted orator makes a stirring speech in a foreign language, and this is the same feeling I get watching Alice deliver her message. It’s inspiring.

My favorite part of the video is the stretch from 1:12 to 1:22. You can easily tell from Alice’s facial expression that the sign for “deaf-mute” (聋哑人), which uses the pinky finger, is distasteful, and that one should use the index finger instead to say “Deaf person” (聋人). It’s not just a matter of arbitrary signs, though. In Chinese sign language, the sign for “good” () is the “thumbs up” sign. The opposite of that is thumb in, pinky out. That’s the sign for “bad” (不好). So the meaning of the sign for “deaf-mute” is clear: “ears bad, mouth bad.” Quite negative. The newer sign uses the index finger, drawing attention to the ear and mouth without disparaging it. You can watch Alice put down the negativity of the pinky finger and choose the index finger instead.

Check out Alice’s other videos. Not all of them have Chinese subtitles, but one interesting one that does is an interview with Deaf rapper Signmark. Alice interviews him in international sign language.

I haven’t watched them all, but it looks like none of Alice’s videos to date have English subtitles. I’m working on convincing her that it would be worthwhile.


“deaf” vs. “Deaf” (read the explanation on the side)
Signmark rapping in Japan (note the character on the back of the group’s shirts)
– the 2009 Deaflympics are in Taipei, the year after the Beijing 2008 Olympics (coincidence??)


Apr 2007

Character-based Sign Language

Shortly after I arrived in China and observed the deaf community in Hangzhou, a beautiful thought struck me. Deaf people communicate in an entirely different way. If all the deaf people in the world use sign language, they could all learn the same sign language and communicate with each other regardless of race or nationality. No barriers. A truly international language!

But alas, that was not to be. You see, sign language doesn’t just “substitute for” or “imitate” human language… it is a human language. As such, it is subject to the same restrictions and limitations by which all human languages are bound. In this case, one of the most important factors is that deaf communities are very often isolated. They’re isolated within a country, with a city, or within a district. Without a means to regularly communicate, communities drift apart linguistically over time.

Not only is Chinese sign language different from sign language of other countries, but it also varies from city to city. The sign language of Shanghai differs from that of Hangzhou or Beijing, for example. Even so, there is a national standard promoted. (I’m not sure how hard the Chinese deaf communities strive to adhere to it.)

One of the ways that Chinese sign language sets itself apart is its references to Chinese characters. Certainly not all signs make reference to Chinese characters, and those signs that do make reference to characters don’t necessarily do it in a character-for-character way, but the influence of characters in Chinese sign language is tangible.

Here are a few examples from my book:


Sign: 人


Sign: 人民


Sign: 公民


Sign: 干


Sign: 食品

I don’t actually know Chinese sign language… does anyone know any other interesting Chinese signs?


Apr 2007

Chinese Sign Language: Fingerspelling

手语基础 (book cover)

手语基础 cover

I recently picked up a book on Chinese sign language called 手语基础. “Practicality” was not a major consideration in the organization of the book; it seems to be written by linguists for linguists. If I needed the book to actually communicate in Chinese sign language I’d probably be pretty disgusted with it, but since my interest is primarily academic, I’m enjoying it.

In its second chapter the book talks about fingerspelling (also called manual alphabets). It runs through a variety of systems, including the earliest systems used in Chinese. I’ve scanned the charts (click through to the Flickr page for larger size), which you see below. (more…)