- Deaf around the world: The impact of language
Research papers on sign languages place deaf signers front and center. Their faces fill the drawings and photographs that give papers on signed languages such a different look from those on spoken languages. Often enough, linguists—deaf or hearing—know the signers in those pictures. But how well do linguists know the communities to which those signers belong? Are linguists aware of the social and political issues confronting deaf communities? They should be, say Gaurav Mathur and Donna Jo Napoli. Mathur and Napoli also say that the Deaf Pride movement of the 1970s and 1980s was spurred by research validating sign languages as true languages (Humphries 2008). So linguists and community activists alike can benefit by meeting on common ground, as they did at Swarthmore College in 2008 for the conference from which this volume comes.
The resulting volume is an unusual mix of linguistics and activism in which each chapter is paired with a response; the last third of the book is devoted to issues of social justice in the world's deaf communities. Based on experience in Brazil, Kenya, and the United States, AMY WILSON and NICKSON KAKIRI argue for a social model of disability; outsiders (hearing or deaf) should work with the local deaf community to empower that community. YERKER ANDERSSON draws lessons from a career engaged with deaf communities around the world; he observes that nongovernmental organizations—particularly, missionary groups—have influenced sign languages in developing countries by introducing American or European sign languages. JUN HUI YANG and MADAN M. VASISHTA report on the Chinese and Indian deaf populations. In 2006, 80% of Chinese deaf children had access to education, whereas in 1987 under 40% were schooled; in 1986 just 5% of Indian deaf children attended school. Three essays (PAUL SCOTT's and responses from DONNA WEST and PADDY LADD) address the development of Deaf pedagogies, including pedagogies that will help deaf children gain metalinguistic awareness of their own language. For earlier discussion of Deaf pedagogies, see Padden & Ramsey 2000. KAREN NAKAMURA's chapter and SOYA MORI's response take us inside the Japanese deaf community to discuss its language politics, particularly issues that arise in coining new signs. Two transcribed conversations, one between LEILA MONAGHAN and DEBORAH KARP and the other between JOHN MELETSE and RUTH MORGAN, discuss impediments (attitudinal, linguistic, financial, and institutional) to AIDS awareness in the American and South African deaf communities. [End Page 436]
Two broad themes guide my discussion of the linguistic papers that form the bulk of this collection. The first emerges from the fact that learners of sign languages are uncommonly diverse, especially in their early linguistic experience. The second pertains to the role that iconicity and gesture play in the historical development of sign languages.
The demographics of American Sign Language (ASL) and other established sign languages are unusual: only 5% or so of the American deaf population was born to deaf parents; only this small fraction are native users of ASL. Just a tiny minority of deaf children have a deaf grandparent; only these children have reliable access to a native-signing model in infancy. With differences in parentage come crucial differences in linguistic input. Most deaf children are born to hearing parents and, historically, were first exposed to ASL in primary school or later. For young deaf children of hearing parents, their effective input may largely consist of the gestures of their parents. Such deaf children sometimes innovate language-like gestural systems, so-called homesign (Goldin-Meadow & Mylander 1990). Two chapters report the signing of adult homesigners who had had little or no exposure to an established sign language. ANN SENGHAS and MARIE COPPOLA compare the use of pointing signs by Nicaraguan homesigners to the use of such signs by learners...