Why are Sign Languages Included in the Ethnologue?

Sign languages are not in the same category as all the other languages in Ethnologue, people say to me. What is the reason they are included right along with spoken languages?

It’s a fair question. And in fact, up until the Eleventh edition, Ethnologue did not include any signed languages. But it might be surprising to learn how similar these languages are to “spoken” languages as they are often called. There are differences, of course, but there are also many similarities. For example: complexity. It will surprise some to learn that a fully developed sign language has a grammar that is just as complex as any other.

Can they truly be languages? People say, we don’t read and write sign languages. Well, in fact, systems have been developed to write sign languages for others to read but it is true that few deaf people write their sign languages.  On the other hand, sign languages are not so different in this regard since in fact the majority of spoken languages have not been reduced to writing either.

Some ask, aren’t sign languages just hand motions that stand for words in the person’s national language? No, signs stand for concepts just as words in a spoken language do. But they don’t match up one for one.  Some signs will have a range of meaning that covers several words; some words will need different signs depending on the context in which the word is used. And while there is a system for signing English, for example, and it uses quite a few of the same signs as American Sign Language, it’s not a natural language. ASL has an entirely different grammar that is more natural, streamlined and fine-tuned for use in a visual medium.

But, some might think, there are lots of people and especially older people who are very hard-of-hearing. Most of them don’t even know a sign language. That’s true, and so the population of people using signed languages in an Ethnologue entry counts only those for whom signing is their primary language.  The primary consideration is language, not how well people can hear. Each person is to be included in the population of one and only one of the world’s languages so that there is no double counting. At least that is the goal.

Many may think: don’t deaf people read lips? So isn’t their true language the same as those around them? Isn’t signing just what they use to communicate with other deaf people? Don’t deaf people read and write the language spoken in their country? Well, yes and no to this question. A few do lip-read to some extent, learn to speak and go to school with hearing children. But the vast majority world-wide never learn to adequately lip-read, let alone speak, read and write. Even the best lip-readers are constantly playing a guessing game. For deaf people who know a sign language, most prefer to use it rather than speech and lip-reading—and they use it with hearing people who sign as well as with other deaf.  Although some deaf people read and write well, many do not. This is not surprising as it’s very difficult to learn to read a spoken language that they have never heard.

Why so many sign languages then?

With the eleventh edition SIL finally recognized that a list of the world’s languages would have to include signed languages to be legitimate. Sixty nine were included in that edition.

That brings up another question: how do we know that one sign language is different from another and deserves a separate entry? A good test is whether people can understand a video, or can understand a discussion going on in the other language variety when they are not part of the conversation. Another concern is whether there is an attitude of acceptance toward the other’s signing. If so on both points, we count them as using dialects of the same language deserving only a single entry.

Often each country has its own, unique sign language. This comes about because a sign language develops naturally when deaf people come together, and because schools are not standardized across the world. Many schools for the deaf have been started by missionaries or other foreigners so there is often a link to the foreign sign language in the new. However as time goes by, new words and other innovations are added and now the challenge is to find out how much mutual intelligibility still exists between a new sign language and its source, and what attitudes exist. The sign language used in the Philippines is based on American Sign Language and is still very similar to it, for instance, but due to national pride, Filipino Sign Language is given a separate entry. Things like this happen in spoken languages too; Danish and Norwegian are mutually-intelligible but have separate entries.

Some countries have more than one signed language. The west of Panama signs differently from the east. In Nepal, besides Nepali Sign Language there are three “village sign languages” that we know about.  Village sign languages are ones typically used by deaf and hearing alike when the population in a small region has a significantly high number of deaf people.

The eleventh edition listed 69 and the thirteenth edition has 136 living sign languages. We know there are many more, but research is needed to document attitudes and which varieties are separate languages and not dialects of another language. Research on signed languages of the world lags far behind most other language families.

There is one major difference between spoken and signed languages. Children born deaf are usually born to hearing parents. At most ten percent of children born deaf are born to a parent who is also deaf. So most deaf children cannot learn a language from their parents.  Instead they learn when they are sent to a school for the deaf or when they find a community of deaf people to learn it from, usually in a city near where there is also a deaf school.

Another difference is that while writing systems have been developed for writing sign languages, usually people who are deaf communicate face to face. Rather than writing, they record stories, instruction and so forth on a video medium. For every day communication, a webcam and access to the internet is the preferred way to dialogue.

In short, signed languages, of which there are many, truly deserve to be considered real languages in every way, and that’s why they are included in Ethnologue.

Ted Bergman