Physical versus Cultural Deafness
....different languages mold different cultures.....


Part One
Many Aspects To Deafness

People who are born hearing and become deaf late in life, are "physically deaf", but "culturally hearing". They grew up speaking a spoken language, using the telephone, the TV, the radio. They think, speak, read, write and base their opinions on the world they knew before they became deaf. They rarely learn a signed language.

People who are born into the Deaf Community, and whose first native language is a signed language, not a spoken one, are "culturally Deaf". Most of them are physically deaf as well. Some of them are born-deaf or became deaf at a very young age. Some of them are hearing people born into all-deaf families, and even though they can hear, even though they speak a spoken language, their first language was a signed language, not a spoken language. They base their view of the world from the Deaf perspective. They are "physically hearing" but "culturally-deaf".

Hearing people have a hard time imagining what it would feel like to be born physically deaf. Try to imagine never hearing a sound from the moment of your birth! For a hearing adult, it is impossible to know how that feels.

But it is even harder for hearing people to imagine "cultural deafness".Why? Of course there are many reasons. For example, it is hard for hearing people to think of signed languages as real languages. Yet they have been proven by research to be as rich and as sophisticated as spoken languages.

Usually hearing people are afraid of becoming blind. But to them, deafness doesn't seem nearly as bad. They forget that hearing is connected with the development of speech.

Born-deaf children, or children who become deaf very young, before the age of three, must learn a spoken language they have never heard and never will. Hearing aids do not work for all Deaf people. And even when hearing aids do work, they work with minimal success for the profoundly deaf. Sounds are muffled. It is very hard to distinguish between voices and other sounds. Oftentimes a Deaf person can only hear bells or telephones with a hearing aid, but cannot hear voices distinctly.

Deafness in Deaf families is often genetically based. There are several genes that produce deafness. In Deaf families, most often, everyone uses a signed language. They are "native signers", since it is their first language. Later they learn spoken language as their second language.

Language defines culture. Yes...of course Americans who are born-deaf are Americans, but they also belong to a sub-culture...the Deaf Culture. The United States is made up of many sub-cultures or communities, such as the Irish American Community, the Afro-American Community and the Deaf Community. There are, in other words, cultural differences between Deaf and hearing people. The "D" in "Deaf" is capitalized because it is referring to a group of people who use a different language.

When a Deaf person is born into a Deaf family, they communicate in the same language of their parents. Their language development, using sign language from the moment of birth, is as normal as any hearing child's language development in spoken language. Everyone in the family uses the same language and the child starts speaking or signing at the expected age. They began absorbing language as babies.

Deaf children born to hearing parents are not always so lucky. Of course there are exceptional stories of hearing parents who do an outstanding job giving their deaf child every chance for the right education. But more often than not, a deaf child is at a disadvantage in a hearing family.They are born different than their parents. Often the hearing parents do not realize the child is deaf until age three, when they realize the child does not speak. The first three years are the crucial years for language development, so under those circumstances the child is deprived of "normal language development". Every member of the family is frustrated. Communication is often poor at best.

Few hearing parents learn sign language. Few born-deaf people can read lips well, since only 30 per cent of sounds can be seen on the lips. That means 70 percent of the sounds are guessed at... when lip reading. Try lip reading a language you have never heard, and you will find the frustration level is enormous! Remember...born-deaf people have not heard English or spoken language and never will. So they memorize the lip reading of certain common phrases, and then they are just polite and don't complain when they cannot understand other sentences. They are skilled at reading body language and guessing in context. But they miss a lot, and they often feel "left out" and isolated.

That is why signed languages are so necessary and so wonderful. A Deaf person who signs, amongst other people who sign, is not handicapped. If every hearing person could sign, deafness would not be classified as a "disability". Deaf people are just as intelligent and as capable as any hearing person. They simply use another language to receive full information.


Part Two
Spoken Language Literacy

For born-deaf people to function in a hearing world, they must learn to read and write spoken language - a language they have never heard. Reading a spoken language is not based on sight alone - it is based on sounds. When hearing people learn to read, they "sound-out" the letters in each word. Profoundly-deaf people cannot "sound-out" words. They must learn to read from rote-memory, without sound connection. That is not easy! Many born-deaf people are brilliant, and have several college degrees. Some Deaf people read and write several spoken languages. But others do not always read spoken languages well.

We have all heard that there are illiterate people in the United States. Most of these people have normal hearing and normal learning abilities. Yet as adults, they must learn to read and write. It is no surprise that some Deaf adults, with all of their added hardships, also have trouble learning to read and write.

It is said that born-deaf people often read and write spoken language at around a fifth-grade reading level. That is not surprising, since the spoken language is their second language, not their first. This is also true for hearing people who learn a second language as adults. They tend to read and write that second language, even though they speak it fluently, at around the fifth grade reading level. So the issue is not deafness. It has to do with reading and writing your second language.


Part Three
Signed Language Literacy

Signed languages are as old as history. They are not new languages recently invented. Like spoken languages, they developed naturally. Deaf people needed to communicate with those around them. Certain gestures became commonly understood, and in time, as with spoken languages, a rich vocabulary and grammar structure developed. Like spoken languages, signed languages are living languages. They change as the people who use them change.

There is not just one international signed language in the world. There is a different signed language in every country. Some countries have several signed languages. Some signed languages have several "dialects". Why? The best answer to that question, is with another question. "Why isn't there an international spoken language?"

People did try to invent an international spoken language, called Esperanto. But few speak Esperanto. The naturally evolved spoken languages are used, but not the invented ones. Signed languages are no different. People tried to invent an international signed language, called Gestuno. But even though the attempt was admirable, no one really signs Gestuno. The naturally evolved signed languages "won".

American Sign Language (ASL) is used in the USA and in English-speaking Canada. There are many dialects of ASL. Because of Gallaudet University in Washington D.C, and other fine schools for the Deaf, most ASL dialects are understood by Deaf people all over the country. ASL is remarkably standardized, considering the size of the USA and Canada, and considering that up until now, there was no written form for the language. It is possible that SignWriting will help to preserve ASL, and will contribute to its standardization.

The signs listed in the SignWriting dictionary help signers learn to "spell" or write ASL signs. As with all dictionaries, individual words or signs do not teach grammar. Learning to write proper ASL sentences in SignWriting takes time and practice. Even native ASL signers, who grew up with sign language, must learn how to put their grammar on paper.

Why write signed languages? There are numerous reasons. For example, a written form preserves signed languages for future generations. Writing signs helps hearing people learn signs. And now that the SignWriting Literacy Project is donating books to schools, the teachers tell us that the highly pictorial nature of SignWriting makes it ideal for teaching Deaf people to improve reading and writing skills.



Please feel free to write if you have questions.

Valerie Sutton


Deaf Action Committee for SignWriting
Center For Sutton Movement Writing
an educational nonprofit organization
P.O. Box 517, La Jolla, CA, 92038-0517, USA

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