Language of the hands

This week’s post is an interview on a subject I have always wanted to learn more about, and Prof. Erin Wilkinson of the University of Manitoba helped me to learn so much.

Professor Wilkinson is a linguist who studies signed languages, and who grew up speaking one of them. This subject is of such interest to me because it is so understudied and underrepresented in research, yet it responds to an essential need for humans : no matter the barriers, humans will find a way to communicate. Professor Wilkinson played the role of the Canadian Language Museum’s resident Mythbuster as she communicated clearly all the misconceptions, that so many of us –myself included, I am embarrassed to admit—can fall subject to.

Professor Erin Wilkinson (Photo: Clara Haimes Kusumoto)

Professor Erin Wilkinson (Photo: Clara Haimes Kusumoto)

Michael Iannozzi : What led you to study linguistics?

Erin Wilkinson : This is the second most common question asked after “Is sign language universal?” To which the answer is no, signed languages are not universal. I often reply: Are spoken languages universal? Imagine people’s reaction.

My fascination with languages started when I was young. I was born to a hearing family who did not know how to sign, and we all were introduced to the Deaf world as we chose to learn American Sign Language (ASL). Books introduced me to English. I constantly asked my parents how and why did English worked in specific ways. It was a sure sign that I was a bona fide linguist as I was asking all these questions about rules of English compared to ASL.

MI : I think to a lot of people sign language will be thought of as English. I think there is a perception that it is just English in a signed form. How is it different?

EW : Yes, there are two assumptions about signed languages. The first assumption is that signed languages in general are not de facto languages [not true languages]. There are many documents that debunk this assumption; however, this assumption prevails among laymen and scholars.

The second assumption is that the signed language is a visual representation of their surrounding spoken language (however it would be more appropriate to say that it’s a visual representation of their surrounding written languages, as deaf people do not have access to spoken languages) [Meaning people often think that American sign language is just English using your hands instead of your mouth/pen].

Now, if we compare signed languages with spoken languages, then we must be cautious when we go down this road. There are many aspects of signed languages that are found in spoken languages (and vice versa); however, there appear to be modality-specific properties that only can happen in signed languages (visual-gestural) or spoken languages (oral-auditory) [Meaning that even though there are many similarities between a Signed Language and a spoken one, there are certain things that only occur in languages that are visual, and others that only occur in languages that are spoken]. It is important to understand that research on signed languages is far more sparse and is (relatively) young compared to the long history of spoken language linguistics. Second, we need to consider: what makes signed language communities? Deaf people are unique in terms of linguistic–cultural minorities. There is no evidence of a signed language community that can be classified as language majority, let alone a signed language as language majority in a community that has members who speak [meaning that users of a signed language make up the majority of a given community]. Sure, deaf people cannot hear English, but the Deaf people go to school, work, shop, text and go on the Internet. They clearly use written language to function in many situations, and it is not surprising to see characteristics of language contact (e.g. code switching or language mixing). Thus deaf people are bilingual by default.

MI : I think many people assume there is one sign language for all the English-speaking countries. How do the signed languages differ in the English-speaking world, and why?

EW : Yes, that is true as this is one of some common misconceptions that many people have. We don’t find that to be true. The classic example is signed languages used in the UK and the USA. Both the UK and USA are English-speaking countries, but they do not have an identical signed language “British accent” or “American accent”, but instead signed languages used are very different. The mutual intelligibility between British and American signers is low (similar to English speakers trying to understand Russian). Furthermore, Irish Sign Language is also different from both British and American signed languages.

MI : What does the study of signed languages reveal about languages more broadly?

EW : Studying signed languages helps us (linguists and cognitive scientists) to understand more about how the mind works. Most studies revolve on examining how modality [how one conveys meaning, whether it be writing, speaking, or signing] shapes language structure, but there are other studies that examine language typology, language evolution, and much more—which helps us understand what defines language. We seek what defines language by understanding more about modality-independent and modality-dependent properties.

Signed language studies generally are more challenging to conduct compared to studies on major languages (e.g. English, Spanish, etc) for various reasons. First, there are few signed language linguists in the world. Second, recruiting signed language members for research is not that easy, and they are considered a highly vulnerable population. Third, it is extremely time-consuming to code signed language data (it is difficult to transfer visual materials into searchable codes since this would involve a lot of money, and of course time). There are so many things about signed languages we still don’t know much. Especially typological diversity in signed languages—how to discover more signed language variation.

MI : Are there “accents” in signed languages? And what does it “sound”/look like?

EW : Accents are conveyed in different ways—similar to spoken languages—with word choice (regional lexical variation) or phonological variation (e.g. some are more likely to move their hands lower whereas others would keep their hands higher in the signing space). Don’t forget this—everyone has an accent. What more is that we have a “hearing accent” – nondeaf signers have their own accent that is not seen in deaf signers because the nondeaf have learned it as a second language. Language proficiency also reflects different types of “accent”—deaf people who acquire signed language later in their life do not produce signed language similar to deaf people who acquired signed language at birth.

MI : What is the health, in terms of number of speakers, of signed languages in Canada?

EW : Maritimes SL : There are still a few descendants of Maritimes SL users in Canada, but they are not primary users of Maritimes SL.

Inuit SL : Fragile. Few language users in the North.

LSQ (Quebecois): Healthy. However it is much smaller compared to ASL population in Canada and the US.

ASL: Healthy. ASL may be considered as one of the largest signed language varieties in the world given the large population (of ASL signers, including both deaf and hearing signers. In the US, ASL is 4th most popular language taught in universities).

MI : What are some defining features of Canadian Sign Language?

EW : I will give you some ideas about what is the Canadian variety of ASL; however, this area is extremely poorly investigated. I’ll only talk about lexical variations [Choosing “supper” over “dinner”, for example].

Some lexical variation that clearly defines Canadians from Americans: government, plenty [Meaning that Canadians have a different way of signing these words]

There is also lexical variation within Canada that could identify the signer from a specific region: e.g. the words for committee (in Vancouver), or to talk-about something (in Ontario).

MI : How are new words formed in sign language? If a new concept or idea comes along, is the word “translated” from English, or is a completely different direction likely taken. For example, for a tweet?

EW : Borrowing is normal in languages. So, it’s not surprising to learn that there are English borrowings in ASL. ASL signers have different strategies when a new concept is introduced. Some may be fingerspelled or signed. A sign may be either developed in a “creative” sense of a completely new word, or a modified version of an already existing word [They may create a brand new sign, or they may instead modify an already existing sign, much as we did to repurpose the word “tweet”]. For instance, with “tweet” I have seen ASL signers modify the “bird” sign by moving from the mouth to the torso area with a specific movement.

MI : Are there any words/phrases/concepts that are unique to a sign language that you particularly like?

EW : I don’t have a specific thing in mind, but I am often amazed by how deaf signers seem to choose one sign out of the air to represent an event, a person, or a referent (where the event, person, or referent does not have a unique sign) without consulting each other. The sign they choose clearly conveys the most salient characteristic of the event or person. For instance, if we were talking about someone who we saw at a university function but we didn’t know his name, then I would choose a specific characteristic that would identify the guy out of 50 people. It just blows my mind how quickly they do that and choose one sign to represent a specific referent. (E.g. My friend and I went to a play and that play was unforgettable – for various reasons. At another time and place, my friend chose a sign “teeth-shine” (translation: gleaming teeth) to refer to that play we were at. I knew what he was referring to—the play where we saw lights bouncing from the disco ball that caused an actor’s teeth to “gleam” during the act.)

MI : Finally, is there a perception about signed languages or misunderstanding that you’d like to clarify?

EW : Is a signed language easy to learn? I find this to be a very common question from non-signers. I find this question curious, because it reflects their bias about signed languages. My reply often is asking them a question – do you find learning a new language to be easy? And I also have antecodental reports from family members, friends, students and others, who find learning a new signed language to be much harder than it seems. One of the hot areas in signed language linguistics is second-language learners who also have to learn a new modality (switching from a spoken to a signed language), which is not quite the same as those who are learning a new language in the same modality (a second spoken language).

Second, not only do speakers speak, they also harness their body to express concepts. Speakers in a way are not so different from signers, because they both use their face, hands, and bodies (defined as gestural components). What makes it harder for linguists is that signers combine both linguistic and gestural components in the same medium. The role of gesture in language is significant and merits a blog post by itself!

Finger spelling of American Sign Language Alphabet

Finger spelling of American Sign Language Alphabet

Finger spelling of British Sign Language alphabet

Finger spelling of British Sign Language alphabet










A deep and sincere thank you to Professor Erin Wilkinson for providing such fascinating (and enlightening) answers. Signed languages are, as she said, vastly understudied, and there are so many presumptions, assumptions, and ideas that the speaking world has about signed languages that are a huge oversimplification of the reality—or in many cases just plain wrong.

Learning about signed languages can teach us a lot about languages in general. In some ways it is very different from spoken languages, because it isn’t spoken, and in other ways it can inform us about the way all languages work. Signed languages are unique in that it isn’t often the parents will be the first to teach their child a signed language because in many cases the parents don’t know how to sign one. Instead, the child learns from peers and instructors, and not in the home.

Even if you will never learn a signed language, I thank Professor Wilkinson for busting a whole bunch of myths! Hopefully this will help shed some light on this incredible language for hearing people and the Deaf community alike.


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi