Sign Language Brilliance
Deaf and dumb, a lie we heard so often we ended up believing it.
My attempt at learning sign language has stripped away all the stereotypical layers and left me with only one conclusion. I’m the dumb one. I have been conditioned that English, my second language is ‘all I need to get by’ to quote a popular song written by the African American couple Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. I also don’t need another language, let alone sign language.My conditioning looks at life in squares with sharp edges and not circles like the sun and the moon. That is why I carve out my body parts like a butcher skinning an animal. I use the mouth for eating or producing sounds in local and foreign languages. The eyes are for seeing people and images. Arms are for picking up computer bags and babies. The face is for cosmetics and smiling.
I say the face because the mouth does not have the monopoly of smiling. It is a rainbow moment that illuminates the whole face, putting life’s daily trauma on hold. A smile is a human phenomenon because I’ve never seen good old mama lion lounging on the grass somewhere in Kenya and Botswana, giving her kids a smile.
Sign language in the estimated 193 countries in the world does not work in cubicles. Deaf people celebrate the whole body. You can hear what they are saying provided you are willing to hear and see. I am handicapped because I can only hear. I therefore hide this handicap by being irritated when I come across people using sign language. I even don my superiority mantle and label them ‘dumb’.
Envy is more like it. One of the devastating effects of a bout of flu is losing one’s voice. Technology, in the form of text messages, e-mail, Twitter, Black Berry Messenger, social networking and what have you has cushioned the fall of losing one’s voice, but the thought is still scary.
However, it is not a life threatening condition for people we wrongly label as ‘deaf and dumb’ because sign language has twins. The hands and eyes are comrades in arms. This bond is so effective it allows sign language to successfully clear hurdles presented by technology, a challenge faced by all living languages. There is a way to sign computer, keyboard, website, e-mail etc.
I appreciate my hands more now since I started sign language classes. I don’t limit them to the steering wheel and changing gears. They are a language laboratory, whether one is using Canadian Sign Language of American Sign Language. Who? What? Why? Where? When? These were drummed into me at Columbia University Journalism School but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the correct sequence.
My hands have answers to all these questions. They report the state of the world with all its glories and self-inflicted misery. Sign language is also considerate because it gives my hands a break from time to time. The hands and eyes complement each other but some things are best said with the eyes only.
The eyes’ critical function in sign language, make me wonder how I justify a throw-away mentality to life. Here today gone tomorrow. I did not have speech when I was young but I knew how to communicate with my parents, besides crying of course. I knew when my mother was angry. I also smiled when I saw all that love in her eyes.
Childhood does not have the conventional speech but it has communication.Unfortunately, we still think that a child’s first words are a great leap forward, not realising that it is a state of regression. Why? Because in future, the child will rely more on its voice to interact with home and the world, than in eye contact.
The world in question is a speech world. That is why in 2014 we still refer to sign language users as ‘deaf and dumb’ who belong to a ‘sub-culture’. We are so comfortable in our airless box we cannot acknowledge sign language even when it is staring us in the face.
Baseball fans who follow the World Series understand the signs between the ball catcher and the pitcher. The ball catcher does some gymnastics with his fingers and the pitcher gets the message. He then throws the appropriate pitch. Sign language purists might disagree, but it is sign language because there was no voice to relay the message.
Embracing sign language is a stamp of approval to nature. Trees and flowers come in different shapes and colours but they are all equal. I am bowled over by the beautiful fish I see in National Geographic deep sea documentaries. I don’t want to restrict myself to land. Sign language will improve my communication skills. Period.
Nonqaba Msimang is the creator of BB4M a teen television series.