Dale Lowry is my visitor this week, joining us with a really interesting post about sign languages, and the role sign language plays in their books. It’s a fascinating guest post. There’s also a discount code so make sure you take advantage! So over to Dale…
Thanks for having me on your blog today to talk about sign languages, Nic! This is one of my favorite topics. Heck, I even wrote a thesis on sign languages. And they keep popping up in my stories—in my recently released collection Falling Hard: Stories of Men in Love, and again in my erotic short story “What Marriage Is About,” which appears in the Sexy Little Pages anthology Silence is Golden. (Both are on discount at Smashwords through March 11 when you use the coupon code found on the books’ info pages in the Smashwords store.)
Before talking about how I include sign languages in my stories, I want to offer a little background in the form of common questions that people have about sign languages and deafness.
What is a sign language?
A sign language is a language that primarily uses the hands and visual cues to convey meaning. Like spoken languages, natural sign languages have evolved over time as they were used in everyday conversations by groups of people. They have words and grammar, and some have standardized writing systems.
Is sign language the same around the world?
No. Someone who knows American Sign Language will not understand British Sign Language (or French Sign Language or Australian Sign Language or Japanese Sign Language …) without studying, and vice versa. Ethnologue, an encyclopedic directory of the world’s languages, lists 142 sign languages around the world.
Who uses sign language?
Sign languages have tended to develop wherever there are groups of deaf people. But anyone who encounters a sign language on a regular basis is likely to pick up at least some of it up. At least one sign language developed among users who were mostly hearing (though it has also been used by the deaf): Plains Indian Sign Language of North America.
So sign languages are all about the hands, right?
Although people often think of signed languages as “languages of the hands,” other parts of the body play a role in forming words as well. In American Sign Language, for example, the most-often used words for “man” and “woman” have the same hand shape. The only difference in the words is where the hands make contact with the face, which you can see in the first few seconds of this video (turn captions ON for English translation):
Also, facial expression can convey meaning. In ASL, people raise their eyebrows when asking a yes/no question like “Did you go to the store?” and lower their eyebrows when asking a who-what-where-why-how question like, “Where is the store?” In Nederlandse Gebarentaal (NGL, or Dutch Sign Language), raised eyebrows are used for all questions. This difference leads to a small miscommunication between a Dutch signer and an American signer in my story “Reading the Signs.”
Writing about sign languages
Writing about characters who use sign language gets complicated. Writing systems for signed languages exist, but they aren’t standardized and most aren’t based on the alphabet used by English. So I can’t just drop snippets of sign languages into a story the way I might with Spanish or German. Any signed dialogue has to be translated into English, though I try to convey something about the language itself by describing some of the movements and expressions involved. For example, this is how I described a snippet of conversation between the two main characters in my story “Reading the Signs,” featured in Falling Hard:
“How do you say ‘what’ in Dutch Sign Language?” Alfonso asked one afternoon as they finished their desserts at the I Scream Ice Cream parlor.
Theo, satisfyingly full of coffee-and-salted-caramel ice cream, raised his eyebrows, lifted his index finger, and waggled it back and forth.
Theo raised his eyebrows and held out both hands, fingers spread apart and palms facing upward. He moved them toward each other and then apart.
In this snippet from “What Marriage is About” from Silence is Golden, the description isn’t as detailed but still conveys a little bit about the language:
Ed used the old-fashioned form of I love you, the one that required three words and two hands, and looked like the German Sign Language words he’d grown up with.
The two stories in Falling Hard involving sign languages are “Pacific Rimming” and “Reading the Signs.” The narrator of “Pacific Rimming,” Mike, is a professional sign language interpreter who offers translation services between English and American Sign Language. He’s a hearing child of Deaf parents, which is often abbreviated as CODA (for “Child of Deaf Adults”) and started learning ASL before English. His husband, Ken, is Deaf and began signing as a teenager. While on vacation in Western Canada, they meet a younger man who’s been teaching himself ASL—and fall in love. (ASL is spoken in the United States and most of Canada.)
“Reading the Signs” is a little more complicated. The main character, Theo, is Dutch and grew up speaking one of the main dialects of Nederlandse Gebarentaal with his Deaf parents. A masters’ student, he comes to the United States for a summer linguistics institute with a focus on signed languages. He has few problems adapting to English, which he’s studied for years in school, but has a bit of trouble with American Sign Language. Meanwhile, he develops a crush on an older man whose main languages are—in no particular order—English, Spanish, American Sign Language, Nicaraguan Sign Language (also known as ISN for “Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua”), and a bit of Yiddish and Hebrew besides. Talk about a potential for communication problems!
My story in Silence Is Golden focuses on a Deaf married couple, and a major conflict in the story arises from the hostility that some Deaf people have faced when using sign language. Ed’s past includes abuse at the hands of his teachers and parents, who tied his hands together to keep him from signing. So when his husband, Darren, blurts out that he wants to experiment with bondage and domination (BDSM), Ed flips out. While it all works out there, it takes a lot of communication to get there—mostly in American Sign Language, but German Sign Language (DGS, or Deutsche Gebärdensprache) also makes a brief appearance in the story. Apparently I like to write about multinational couples.
Learning sign languages
Interested in learning a sign language or two? Like any language, the best way is to learn in person from fluent speakers. But if that’s not possible, or if you’re looking for extra practice, the internet has made learning easier than ever. The following are a few resources I have used to learn about various sign languages, but you can also find tons more through the amazing Google. Just keep in mind that the best resources are those that teach grammar (how to put sentences together) in addition to vocabulary. Sign language grammars are different from those of spoken languages, so you can’t just string the words together the way you would in English, for example. If you do this, signers will have a hard time understanding you.
American Sign Language
My favorite free resources for American Sign Language are LifePrint.com and Sign School. LifePrint has an enormous amount of information—so much that it can be hard to figure out where to start. I recommend searching for “ASL Lessons” on the home page and starting with #1. You will have an easier time with the lessons if you are able to keep multiple tabs open. This will let you easily switch back and forth between lesson plans and vocabulary videos.
Sign School’s website is easier to navigate, and it also has an app that works on many phones. A feature that I really like is the “Sign of the Day.” You can sign up to get an email each day with a new sign. The downside of Sign School is that the free version has fewer lessons than LifePrint’s free version.
There are also tons of apps for ASL, but none of them work very well on my Samsung Galaxy S5, so I can’t tell you much about them.
Dutch Sign Language (NGT, Nederlandse Gebarentaal)
I’m no expert in Nederlandse Gebarentaal, but I can recommend a dictionary app that was very helpful when I was writing “Reading the Signs”: Leren Gebarentaal. All translations are to Dutch, so you need to know Dutch or have Google Translate handy. Its associated website is LerenGebaren.nl, which has free lessons (mostly limited vocabulary) as well as paid courses.
German Sign Language (DGS, Deutsche Gebärdensprache)
Deutsche Gebärdensprache is spoken in Germany and part of Belgium. (Austria and Switzerland use different sign languages.) Like most spoken languages, German Sign Language has several distinctive dialects that vary with geography. However, this can be more pronounced in Germany because of its previous separation into two countries and educational systems.
GebärdenLernen offers a free course that progresses the learner through the vocabulary and grammar of the Berlin dialect. The first few lessons are heavy on the vocabulary, with grammar being more heavily incorporated later on. You can also download a dictionary app to your phone: Deutsche Gebärdensprache Wörterbuch.
British Sign Language (BSL)
Honestly, I find British Sign Language a bit baffling, so I went to The Limping Chicken, a popular UK deaf blog. There, I browsed some of the links, and for free online offerings I was most impressed with Sign World (it also has a paid version). What I found it really interesting about Sign World is that its vocabulary lessons show speakers from all over the United Kingdom signing the word in question. So if you live in Cardiff (or are doing to move to Cardiff), you can study the way the Cardiff signer says something. It’s like studying America English and learning to say “soda” on the East Coast, “pop” in parts of the Midwest, and “Coke” in the South.
Note: Don’t forget to turn on the video captions, or you’ll be mightily confused!
Auslan (Australian Sign Language)
Since Nic is Australian, it would be a shame not to mention Auslan in this article. Auslan is related to the British Sign Language that immigrants brought to the continent, but has changed a lot over the years and is now a separate language. I spent a little time with Sign Online, an introductory Auslan course, and found it to be fun and easy to follow. Word junkies and intermediate-to-advanced students of Auslan can expand their vocabulary at the Auslan Signbank, a collaborative online English-Auslan dictionary.
In spite of that thesis I wrote, I’m hardly the world’s leading expert in sign languages. To learn about the sign language(s) of your country, your best bet is to spend time with Deaf people and take courses offered by fluent signers. But I love talking about them and sharing what I’ve learned with others, so feel free to ask questions in the comment section or contact me through social media. I also have a Pinterest board where I keep track of cool stuff related to sign languages and deafness. Feel free to check it out or follow!
And last but not least, you may have noticed that throughout this article, I sometimes wrote “deaf” and other times wrote “Deaf.” What’s the difference? Lowercase “deaf” refers to the level of a person’s hearing; uppercase “Deaf” refers to a person’s culture, indicating someone who is deaf or hard of hearing and uses a sign language as their preferred form of communication.
About Dale Cameron Lowry
Dale Cameron Lowry is the author of Falling Hard: Stories of Men in Love, and a contributor to numerous fiction anthologies, including Silence Is Golden. When not writing, Dale enjoys mending socks destroyed by the fabric-eating cat in charge of the Lowry household, as well as wasting time on Tumblr, listening to podcasts, studying anatomy, getting annoyed at Duolingo, and reading fairy tales. Previous careers include sign language linguist, grocery store clerk, journalist, gardener, and camp counselor.
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