In recent days, I decided to take a short break from learning words and sounds and stuff of our spoken languages and tried learning something different, signing, specifically American Sign Language, because that is the sign language where resources are very abundant (I know Singapore Sign Language exists as well but I don’t quite have the resources even though courses are there). I have wanted to learn some bits of Japanese Sign Language (JSL) due to its relatively high prevalence of finger-spelling.
Before starting this new learning experience I thought signing was essentially communicative charades; individual hand positions and motions to produce “words”. Other instances would include making hand shapes to signify letters, hence the term finger-spelling. As far as my knowledge goes, JSL features significantly more finger-spelling than ASL. One may say signing is quite simple as there are no sounds to be articulated, but the meaning of each sign changes depending on hand shape, position, manner of movement as well as facial expression.
Unlike spoken languages however, there’re no such things as conjugations and declensions, from what I have learnt so far. You don’t have these suffixes, affixes and prefixes to learn, but there is more to that. Communicating tense and aspect, as well as adverbs proved to be somewhat of a challenge. One example was the past tense. To say “I ate”, one has to sign “I finish eat” or somewhere along those lines. The inclusion of different verbs to change the tense and aspect is one special thing to take note of in sign language. Such particles may come in useful when communicating information when signing.
Remembering how to sign stuff is also another challenge, as one can’t really just write down how to sign a word. In fact, most dictionaries use pictures with annotations, making personal note taking near impossible. There has been a variety of methods to transcribe the individual signs into letters, simple diagrams etc, but learning them in relation to the signing space would be much of a challenge. Thus, to make my learning experience easier, I guess it really boils down to practice makes perfect.
Signing does have its own limitations, as one has to be directly facing the viewer in order to communicate signs the most effectively, and that not many people are familiar with sign language. However, being able to communicate with the hearing or speaking-impaired would be an amazing achievement. Languages where no sounds, no phonemes nor phonetics exist, sign language truly is a case where actions literally speak louder than words.
PS: This is a short memoir of my first encounters at sign language. As I am still learning it, I think it would be nice to share your own learning experiences with sign languages (any) for those interested in them. I believe being able to sign would make a great impact in the hearing or speaking-impaired communities as communication barriers between us and them would be lifted.