Published on February 8th, 2013 | by Carole Zangari5
Why We Generally Don’t Recommend Sign Language
We are big fans of using multimodal communication, supplementing natural speech with communication books, SGDs, AAC apps, gestures, and manual signs. Manual signs, yes. Sign language? Not necessarily. Here’s why.
Sign languages, like ASL, BSL, or Auslan, are fully developed languages with unique morpho-syntactic features. They aren’t just visual forms of spoken languages. Let’s use an analogy. You may have had some experience with translating a sentence from one language into another when travelling (e.g., English to Spanish). It would be great if we could take each individual word in an English sentence, substitute the Spanish word, and end up with a grammatically correct Spanish sentence. It just doesn’t work that way. That approach leaves us with poorly formed sentences, incorrect word forms, and confusing results. When you use a different language, you have to adopt the morphology and syntax of that language. So, to use sign language with the AAC population is to invite confusion. Think of it this way. If I sign a sentence using sign language and say the sentence aloud as I am signing the learner will be hearing one thing and seeing something else. In a sentence like “Later we’re going to see my friend,” I may be saying ‘friend,’ for example, while signing ‘later.’ For the AAC population, which generally has communication problems for reasons other than deafness, this doesn’t make sense. What they need is a visual-gestural way of seeing what they are hearing. That kind of redundancy helps the learner make connections. So, if not sign language, then what?
We generally opt for one of these two choices: formal sign systems or using selected manual signs in English word order.
We are proponents of using sign systems, such as Signed English, Signing Exact English, or Makaton, when that makes sense. In our clinical work, we frequently use key word signing, in which words from ASL are signed as we speak our sentences aloud in English. The approach of using manually coded English (MCE) or key word signing gives us the best of both worlds and allows us to use manual signs to support language.
This video demonstrates the differences between four different forms of signing common in the US.
So, when we see an IEP or report recommending the use of sign language for a non-deaf AAC client, it’s likely that what the SLP really meant was some form of MCE. It’s something you’d want to check out, of course, and determine whether the rationale makes sense to you. Otherwise, MCE is probably the way to go.
If the child is Deaf and will be interacting with the Deaf community, then we would certainly consider recommending a true sign language. Likewise, if the child is hearing but born to Deaf parents. These are big decisions for families and they look to us for guidance. It’s important that we can clearly articulate the benefits and drawbacks of each approach so that they can make informed decisions.
A multimodal approach that includes signed communication is a good fit for a large percentage of the AAC learners with whom we work. But you’ll rarely find the term ‘sign language’ in our reports or conversation for the reasons we put forth in this post. It isn’t the end of the world to use ‘sign language’ when you really mean ‘key word signing’ or ‘MCE,’ but, hey, communication is our business. It’s good for us, the language experts, to be accurate in our verbal expression.
If you are using signed communication in your AAC work, please leave us a comment to tell us how that’s going. We love hearing from and learning alongside our prAACtical friends.