Linguistics and languages

When I mention to people that I’m a linguist or have studied linguistics, they often ask something like “Oh, which language(s)?” The popular idea of a linguist seems to be someone who studies / speaks quite a few languages, and linguistics is thought of as studying languages, rather than the study of language in general. As I have studied both linguistics and quite a few languages, I could call myself a linguist in both the scientific and popular senses, and to avoid explaining linguistics every time I often go along with the popular definition.

Most of the people I met in Ireland were interested in languages, and some of them were interested in linguistics, including an American lass who is keen to study linguistics and document some of the native languages of North America, particularly of Alaska. There was also someone else who is studying Irish Sign Language (ISL – Teanga Chomharthaíochta na hÉireann) and was keen to find out about British Sign Language (BSL). Very few ISL signs were familiar to me, and it seems to have more in common with French and American Sign Languages than with BSL.

When people discovered that I speak Welsh, quite a few of them asked me it was hard to learn, as they think it looks very difficult to pronounce. My Welsh-speaking friends make similar comments about Irish. I find Welsh spelling easier as most letters only have one sound and all letters are pronounced, whereas most letters have at least two sounds in Irish and quite a few of them are not pronounced.


Yesterday I finally finished the British Sign Language (BSL) course I’ve been working on for the past year – if other things didn’t keep distracting me I would have finished it sooner. The course consists of just seven unit but manages to fit quite a lot in them, including numbers, colours, time, money, describing people, tenses, hobbies and interests, and food and drink. It also shows you how to construct sentences, and provides background information about sign language and the deaf community. I’ve found it fascinating and would like to learn more. Unfortunately there aren’t any sign language courses available in this area, but I do have a few books on BSL and a CD-ROM.

BSL is a bit simliar to Chinese languages in terms of structure – eg it’s an isolating language which uses time expressions to indicate when things happen rather than conjugating verbs. So you sign things like “Yesterday I eat cake” or “This morning I go to work”. Unlike Chinese or other spoken languages, sign languages can modify signs (words) to add nuances to their meanings. The amount of movement in a sign might be increased and/or its direction changed: for example instead of signing the equivalent of “she’s jumping high” you could sign “she’s jumping” with the sign for jump going higher than usual. Or if you’re describing someone’s hair you can modify the sign for hair to indicate whether it’s straight, curly, long or short hair.

One thing I plan to do with BSL is to link signs to words in the languages I’m learning. This will give me something extra to help me remember the words, and will help me to link words in different languages without using English. I think the physical nature of signs helps me remember them better than spoken words – my auditory memory is good, but my physical memory seems even better.

Have you studied or are you studying a sign language?

Mobile sign language

A team at the University of Washington has developed software that enables people to communicate in sign language via cell phones in the USA, according to ScienceDaily. The system transmits the face and hands in higher definition than other parts of the video, which reduces the bandwidth needed and will work on US cell phones and networks, which have lower data transmission rates than those in Europe and Asia. They are also working on a way to recognise when a person isn’t signing to reduce the processing power needed. So soon ASL users will be able to sign to each other over their phone, rather than having to rely on texting.

Such systems are already available in Japan and parts of Europe.

Do any of you use sign language on your mobile/cell phone, or do you know anyone who does?

Police signing

A number of police officers in Lancashire have been learning sign language (BSL) in order to communicate more effectively with deaf people, according to an article in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph.

The BSL-trained officers use their skills to help people who have been arrested and to gather statements from victims, witnesses and offenders. The Lancashire also has a Deaf Liaison Officer, who promotes training in sign language and deaf awareness, and also provides a emergency text messaging service for those unable to call the emergency services in the usual way due to deafness or speech impediments.

Some of the comments on the article rant about “political correctness gone mad” and the “waste tax payers [sic] money” – no surprise there. They also suggest that deaf people and the police could communicate with each other in writing. Other comments make the case the BSL; that writing is not a satisfactory substitute for speech in these situations, and that deaf people have as much right to receive public services as other tax payers.

A related news item on the BBC News site tells of two police officers in Manchester who are learning BSL as well.

Reading baby

According to an blog post I found today, teaching a baby sign language can help him or her to learn to read at an very early age.

The post is about a 17 month old girl who can read, as she demonstrates on the video embedded in the post. Her parents, who are both Speech Pathologists, have taught her American Sign Language as well as English and have encouraged the development of her language skills, though they haven’t drilled her in reading. Learning sign language can also help children develop their spatial and visual abilities apparently.

Have you heard of any other similar cases?

Online sign language translator

There are many sites that translate between different languages, but a site I found today called Sign Translate is the first one I’ve seen that translates between English and sign language.

The site is intended for health professionals working in Britain’s NHS (National Health Service) and provides translations from English to and from British Sign Language (BSL), and also between English and Arabic, Bengali, French, Gujarati, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Somali, Spanish, Turkish and Urdu. The BSL translations are displayed as videos, while translations in the others languages are available as text and audio.

The system does not in fact translate anything you say to it; instead it is programed with a set of typical questions and answers used in medical situations with versions of these in BSL and the other languages. Online BSL interpretation by real interpreters using webcams is also available.

This kind of system could be useful in other places such as hotels, police stations, banks, etc.

Have you come across any similar systems?

More on BSL

Continuing yesterday’s sign language theme, I’ve been looking for information about British Sign Language (BSL) and have found a number online lessons and courses, as well as some information about the language. I’ve even learned a few signs.

BSL is used by over 70,000 deaf people, and also by some 100,000 hearing people. It was recognised as a language in it’s own right by the UK government on 18 March 2003, but it has no legal protection, so is not an official language of the UK.

According to Wikipedia, BSL is very similar to Australian Sign Language (Auslan) and New Zealand Sign Language, and also to Northern Ireland Sign Language (NISL), though differs significantly from Irish Sign Language (ISL), which, like American Sign Language (ASL), developed from French Sign Language (la langue des signes française / LSF).

There are some BSL lessons here, here, here and here.

I find it fascinating to watch sign language being used and would like learn it one of these days.

Science and Sign Language

What do you do if you want to discuss scientific matters such as photosynthesis or magnetism in sign language?

Well, most users of British Sign Language have to spell out the such words using finger spelling, which is quite cumbersome and time consuming. Recently however, the Scottish Sensory Centre at Edinburgh University‘s School of Education started to develop a collection of new signs for mathematical and scientific terms which will not only be more convenient, but will also help students to understand the scientific concepts with gestures which make intuitive sense.

According to an article in The Herald, the new signs are being developed by a BSL expert from the School of Education with help from teachers and others who help deaf students, and also from deaf scientists at the University of Durham.

Türk İşaret Dili (Turkish Sign language)

Turkish Sign Language (TİD) dates back to the Ottoman period. Between the 16th and 18th centuries there was apparently a large group of deaf people in the Ottoman palace who helped officials in secret gatherings and carried out various other official and diplomatic tasks.

The first school for the deaf in Turkey, the Yildiz Deaf School in Istanbul, was set up in 1902. A second deaf school was later opened in Izmir. These schools taught both sign language and Turkish.

In 1953 the Turkish Ministry of Education banned the teaching of sign language in deaf schools in order to promote oral education, a policy promoted by a German academic, who believed that teaching sign language would slow down the learning of spoken language. Since then deaf children in Turkey have learnt sign language from their peers. As a result, there is considerable variation in individual signs and grammar throughout Turkey.

According to an article on Today’s Zaman, there are plans to unify sign language in Turkey. The Prime Ministry Administration on Disabled People and the Turkish Language Institute, Turkish Scientific and Technical Council (TÜBİTAK) are going to undertake a two-year research project to set up a unified national Turkish Sign Language System which will be taught in deaf schools.

You can see an example of Turkish Sign Language in action here