April 14, 2002
Dear SW List Members:
Here is the text of the article, which I got from New York Times
There was also a nice diagram in the article. I will post that
diagram in the next message:
April 14, 2002
Another Language for the Deaf
By MARGALIT FOX
IMAGINE a language that can't be written. Hundreds of thousands of
people speak it, but they have no way to read a newspaper or study a
schoolbook in the language they use all day long.
That is the situation of the quarter-million or more deaf people in
North America whose primary language is American Sign Language.
Although they form a vast linguistic minority, their language, as
complex as any spoken one, has by its very nature defied most
attempts to write it down.
In recent years, however, a system of graphic symbols based on dance
notation has allowed the world's signed languages to be captured on
paper. What's more, the system's advocates say, it may furnish deaf
children with a long-sought bridge to literacy in English and other
spoken languages, often a great struggle for signers.
But despite its utility, the system, called SignWriting, has yet to
be widely adopted by deaf people: for many, the issue of whether
signed languages need to be written at all remains an open question.
"The written form is used by a small number of educated people,"
Valerie Sutton, the creator of SignWriting, said in a telephone
interview from her office in La Jolla, Calif.
Little by little, though, SignWriting is gaining footholds in
individual homes and classrooms in America and abroad. Disseminated
by Ms. Sutton's nonprofit organization (www.signwriting.org), it can
now be found in 27 countries, including Italy, South Africa,
Nicaragua, Japan and Saudi Arabia.
American Sign Language is not English. Spoken in the United States
and parts of Canada, it uses word orders and grammatical constructs
not found in English (in certain respects it resembles Navajo).
For a deaf child whose first language is A.S.L., English - that is,
written English - must be learned as a foreign language, just as a
hearing person might study Sanskrit. But there is a catch: "The
letters of the alphabet are based on sounds they can't hear," Ms.
Sutton explained. For this reason, many deaf students never become
fully literate in English, a perennial concern of educators.
According to a long-term study by the Gallaudet Research Institute in
Washington, deaf high school seniors score, on average, just below
the fourth-grade level on standardized reading tests.
Dawn McReynolds of Clinton Township, Mich., ran into the problem
three years ago, when she discovered her 12-year-old did not know
what "bread" meant. Born deaf, and fluent in A.S.L., Nicole
McReynolds, then a sixth-grader in public school, was clearly bright.
But standardized tests put her academic skills at a first- to
second-grade level. As her stunned mother discovered after she pulled
Nicole from the classroom and began home schooling, though Nicole had
learned by rote to spell simple English words - "bread," "map,"
"yell" - she had little idea what they actually meant.
"Anything I could draw a picture for, she was O.K. with," Mrs.
McReynolds said. "But things like `what,' `where,' `when,' `who' -
she had no idea. It was horrible. It was as if she'd never been
ADVOCATES of SignWriting hope the system can help bridge the literacy
gap. Though no formal studies have been published, anecdotal evidence
from parents and teachers suggests its potential. "It's made English
come alive for her," said Mrs. McReynolds, who introduced Nicole to
SignWriting two and a half years ago, after seeing it on local
Where spoken languages operate acoustically, signed languages work
spatially. Each sign is a compact bundle of data, conveying
linguistic information by three primary means at once: the shape of
the signer's hands, the location of the hands in space and the
direction in which the hands move. (Facial expression also matters.)
Devising a writing system that can capture this blizzard of data for
each of A.S.L.'s thousands of signs is no simple task. "When you
write English, we're using two-dimensional paper to represent a
one-dimensional language, because English is just a series of sounds
in a sequence, and we write down the sounds in the order we say
them," said Karen van Hoek, a linguist who helped develop
SignWriting. "But with sign language, it's the reverse: we're trying
to get a three-dimensional language compressed down onto
two-dimensional, flat paper."
Other writing systems have been created for A.S.L. during its
century-and-a-half-long history. Some, used by linguists, are too
abstract for everyday communication. Another, developed recently at
the University of Arizona, is meant to help teach written English but
not to handle literary traffic, like novel-writing, entirely in A.S.L.
SignWriting, which grew out of a system for transcribing movement
that Ms. Sutton developed in the 1970's to notate choreography, can
be handwritten, or typed using special software. Written vertically,
it uses simple geometric forms to collapse a sign's three basic
parameters - hand shape, location and movement - into a streamlined
icon, topped by a stylized face.
Few embraced the system at first. Many signers, mindful of a long
paternalistic history of hearing people tampering with A.S.L.,
questioned Ms. Sutton's motives. Educators feared it would deter the
deaf from learning English.
Though hostility has subsided, SignWriting is used today by only a
small fraction of the deaf population, between 5,000 and 8,000 people
worldwide, Ms. Sutton estimates. As Jane Fernandes, the provost of
Gallaudet University, the prestigious school for the hearing
impaired, said in an e-mail interview: "There are many deaf adults
who were raised with Sign Language in their homes and schools and who
have learned to read and write English quite fluently. They were able
to navigate between Sign Language and English, without a system for
writing their signs down."
While acknowledging SignWriting's potential usefulness in teaching
English, Dr. Fernandes, who is deaf, expressed doubt about the larger
need for written A.S.L. "English is the language of society," she
wrote. "It works well for us and I believe English will remain the
language in which we write in America."
Nicole McReynolds mastered SignWriting fairly easily, and the English
words that eluded her began gradually to fall into place. Now 15 and
a ninth-grader, she is back in public school, maintaining a B average
in a program for hearing-impaired students conducted in English.
Before SignWriting, Mrs. McReynolds said, "I didn't think she would
be able to live an independent life." These days, Nicole talks of
college. "We believe that SignWriting is going to accompany her
through her life," her mother said. "There is so much more hope for
the future for her because she has this ability now."