Practice Sheet

Deafness and Sign Languages
Understanding a part of deafness world and deaf people by their “visual language”

45 minutes | For educators

Table of Contents

Aim: To guide educators and teachers in understanding a part of deafness world and deaf people by their “visual language” and to understand why it’s so important. It contains some general materials, resources and links, from where the educators can catch the more useful information.

Key words: d/Deafness; Sign Languages; Identity

Prior knowledge: Learners that want to get closer to deafness and in general to sensorial disabilities, don’t have to already possess particular knowledges or skills. The most important requirements are curiosity and open-mindedness. In fact, many features of deafness and Sign Languages explained in this sheet will be in stark opposition to the popular knowledge circulating on the subject itself. Introductory readings about the topic will be provided in order to allow learners to get in and go deeper also in an autonomous way.
People can be interested in such subject because of different reasons: they met a deaf person or they are teachers and have a deaf pupil in class; they are curious because of years watching the interpreters to the news programs and want to find some answers; they are at the beginning of their studying in education and want to work with deaf people…

Introducing deafness…

Who are we talking about? What is the correct name to call these people?

In this practice sheet we are going to talk about people who can do everything except hear. The correct etiquette to call them is “deaf people”: it is the rightest term accepted from deaf communities not only from a cultural and social point of view, but physiologically, too. Indeed, deaf people are not mute as thought in “popular beliefs”, they can speak as anyone else, since the vocal apparatus is intact and functioning. If some deaf people do not produce sounds it could be because of two reasons: the first is that they don’t want to, they don’t feel pleasure in producing sounds as they can’t hear themselves; or, second, because in childhood the speech therapy path was not successful.

Deafness and sign languages
  • d/Deaf – sociological term used throughout education and research to describe individuals who are Deaf (sign language users) and deaf (who are hard of hearing but who have English as their first language and may lipread and/or use hearing aids). Collectively it indicates people who participate in the culture, society and language of deaf.
  • Hard-of-hearing – denotes a person with a mild-to-moderate hearing loss and who does not feel part of Deaf community, but just a person with difficulties in listening to be fixed.
  • Sign Languages (SL) – languages with specific grammar and lexicon that use visual-manual modality as well as non-manual elements (facial expressions, for instance) in order to express any concept, any communication.
  • Fingerspelling – a kind of “writing in the air”. It is a hand alphabet, consisting of hand configurations representing one by one printed letters, useful as a communication system in specific situation, such as: talk about a place that does not have a name sign.
Deafness and sign languages

There are many prejudices and commonplaces about sign language. Below are the most common ones:

  • “Sign Language is universal”
    Sign Language is NOT universal! That’s why we talk about Sign Languages.
    Like any oral language, Sign Languages vary in time, in space, depend on every community and have their own classification and families’ map.
  • “Sign Language is a pantomime”
    Deaf people do not use gestures, Sign Languages are not a development of gestures used by hearing people, only few of them coincide in sign language. Signs are not a faithful representation of their meaning, they are arbitrary as the words of all the languages in the word.
  • “Sign Language is unable to express abstracts concepts”
    People think that the vocabulary of Sign Languages can only be concrete, only related to real contexts. In reality, every concept can be expressed in signs. If these languages can appear “poor”, this happens because the contexts in which were used have been few for too long.
  • “Sign Language has no grammar”
    Sign Languages are not just a set of signs, they have a specific grammar, a system of rules for building phrases, as well as a phonology, a morphology, a syntax…
    Of course, Sign Languages’ grammar is different from oral languages.

To conclude, we have to be aware about how we use such terms, how we call this language and how we talk about people that are in the Deaf community. The fact is that such concepts refer to important issues such as identity and dignity. Sign Languages are real languages that constitute Deaf culture and Deaf identity, as well as oral languages from different countries are strictly part of the culture and the way of thinking and living.

Task/Exercise or Formative Assessment

We propose you to draw a concept map about all the different topics related to deafness and languages while asking yourself what you don’t know and what’s important to deepen about the subject.

Desirable outcome

At the end of this practice sheet, the educator should be aware that when we talk about deafness, there are a thousand facets. We can talk about deafness from lot of different points of view, even from opposite sides and ways of thinking about it. What is desirable is to always respect these different perspectives.

References / Additional Resources