The sign language cultural divide: Or, duh! African Americans have their own sign language

I love when something mundane comes out and surprises.

Did you know there is African American sign language, just as there is African American English (AAE, or more popularly, Ebonics)? It is a distinct version of American Sign Language, often including signs and mannerisms entirely different from the standard counterpart.

Researchers have been studying this phenomenon and have found, not surprisingly, "a rich signing system that reflects both a history of segregation and the ongoing influence of spoken black English." Students who learn the sign language taught in their schools return home and use the sign language they grew up using there. Simple words like "shoe" and "school" are communicated with signs entirely unique from one another across the two sign languages.

This is highly fascinating, and yet, absolutely logical. It seems like a no-brainer for a group with a distinct culture and linguistic system to also have its own language for communicating with the deaf. Of course there are differences in style and meaning, in slang, and in body language. It makes total sense that, just as those who are deaf outside the realm of American Sign Language would have their own versions of sign languages, so to would various cultures within the U.S. It just never occurred to me. A Washington Post article addressed this interesting issue:

... It’s hardly surprising, Miller says, that Americans’ segregated pasts led to the development of different signing traditions — and that contemporary cultural differences continue to influence the signing that black and white Americans use.

Some differences result from a familiar history of privation in black education. Schools for black deaf children — the first of them opened some 50 years after the Hartford school was founded, and most resisted integration until well after the Brown v. Board of Educationdecision of 1954— tended to have fewer resources. Students were encouraged to focus on vocational careers — repairing shoes or working in laundries — rather than pursuing academic subjects, Lucas says, and some teachers had poor signing skills.

But a late-19th-century development in the theory of how to teach deaf children led, ironically, to black students’ having a more consistent education in signing. The so-called oralism movement, based on the now controversial notion that spoken language is inherently superior to sign language, placed emphasis on teaching deaf children how to lip-read and speak.

Driven by the slogan “the gesture kills the word,” the oralism theory was put into practice in the United States predominantly in white schools. Black students, Lucas says, were left to manage with their purely manual form of communication.

Ultimately rejected by people who felt it prevented deaf people from developing their “natural,” manual language, oralism fell out of favor in the 1970s and ’80s, but white signers continued to mouth words.

This brings up all sorts of interesting questions for me. Like, which do you sign at a public event, especially if there might be a predominantly African American audience? As someone whose only use of the Englis language is spoken, it is already hard for me to conceptualize a sign or motion for every concept we have in the spoken language, though I know sign language is complex and has its own depth. It just mystifies me even more to imagine that you might fully understand sign language and still not understand someone in your same country, that they could be signing the equivalent of gibberish. Then how do you address the situation, move forward, and communicate among one another? It's probably one of the smaller obstacles deaf people face in their life, really, but it is a foreign to me, which is why I've never thought about it in terms of different races and cultures living in a context of the same spoken language. But it makes perfect sense.