Tuesday, July 31, 2007

From Our Hands to Your Eyes

Since starting this project just two weeks ago, I have already received numerous messages from colleagues in the sign language interpreting field, and I couldn't be more thrilled about the prospect of including stories from these important (and often pioneering) members of our profession.

Now seems to be an appropriate time to give some kudos to sign language interpreters, being that this is the week that the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) will be holding its annual conference in San Francisco, with approximately 2,000 attendees.

While sign language interpreting is not an area of specialization for me, I've admired sign language interpreters ever since I attended the Critical Link Conference in Montréal, at which interpreters for both signed and spoken languages gathered. I had seen sign language interpreters at work previously, but at that event, there were interpreters on stage for so many different sign languages, each one different from the next, and it was a fascinating sight to behold, something along the lines of a visual chorus.

Many monolinguals, and even many spoken language interpreters, are surprised by the large number of sign languages that exist. It is common for people to assume that sign language is "universal" across the globe. Not so!

There are at least 25 sign languages used in Africa, about 30 sign languages used in Asia, approximately 33 sign languages in Europe, roughly 6 sign languages used in the Middle East, and 22 sign languages used in the Americas.

As for English-speaking countries, readers may be interested in knowing that British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) are very different from each other. For example, fingerspelling in ASL uses just one hand, while in BSL, two hands are required. Irish Sign Language (ISL) is different still, and is rooted in French Sign Language (LSF). I was told by a colleague that this was due to the fact that French nuns taught many of the deaf children in Ireland. Northern Ireland Sign Language (NISL) uses both ISL and BSL.

Across the pond, at one point in history, there was even a Martha's Vineyard Sign Language that thrived at one time due to the unusually high number of deaf inhabitants of the island. In one region of a town called Chilmark, as much as a quarter of the population was deaf. On the island as a whole, about 1 in every 155 people was deaf. This is documented in a book called Everyone here spoke sign language: Hereditary deafness on Martha's Vineyard by Nora Ellen Groce, available here. As schools for deaf children opened on the mainland, many families migrated away from the island, and this sign language soon became extinct.

Another interesting tidbit about sign language interpreting in the U.S. is the fact that many Native Americans of the Great Plains once used a sign language to communicate across languages. This was referred to as Plains Indian Sign Language, and was used by Sioux, Arapahoe, Cheyenne and others. In the late 1800's, there were apparently more than 100,000 individuals who knew this sign language. Today, very few remain.

Often, when I am conducting research on interpreting, I come across articles with helpful information for sign language interpreters, although much of the information usually applies to spoken language interpreters as well. Even when it doesn't apply, it's always interesting.

One virtual treasure trove of information is David Bar-Tzur's site, The Interpreter's Friend. There are some fascinating articles on interpreting for spiritual/religious topics, many of which I believe would be of great interest to all interpreters. There is also a tremendous list of resources.

May the knowledge-sharing continue. All colleagues from the sign language interpreting community are welcome to participate in this project.


Denise said...

I am very happy to see ASL interpreters can participate in this project too! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I am an ASL interp, but never knew that about Martha's Vineyard. Very cool.