Sign language is a truly wonderful form of communication, yet it is often misunderstood.
In fairness, it is easy to misunderstand something that the average person is rarely exposed to. Certified sign language interpreters in Malaysia are very few in number – fewer than 100 people, in fact.
But if you are interested in learning sign language, or simply wondering if you have accidental misconceptions about how individuals with deafness communicate, do read on.
Here are 4 things about sign language that you may not be aware of:
There are many forms of sign language
It is easy to assume that individuals with deafness all use a globally recognised sign language, though this is inaccurate.
Malaysia, for instance, uses Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia or BIM for short. It is the official sign language for local individuals of deafness, though there are offshoots such as the Selangor or Kuala Lumpur sign language. Think of the latter examples as dialects with BIM as the basis.
BIM itself has its roots in American Sign Language – or ASL – though it was adapted to be more suited for Malaysia’s deaf community.
Indonesia’s official sign language also differs from BIM, in the same way Bahasa Malaysia differs from Bahasa Indonesia despite sharing many commonalities.
Sign language isn’t a direct translation of spoken language
BIM is a distinct language from Bahasa Malaysia, with its own rules for forming and sequencing words.
By the same token, both British Sign Language – BSL – and ASL are not a visual representation of the English language.
In fact, if an individual who only knew BSL attempted to converse with someone who only knew ASL, neither of them would understand the other.
One major distinction between the two sign languages is the representation of the alphabet. ASL uses a one-handed manual alphabet, while BSL utilises a two-handed manual alphabet.
Communicating through notes is not necessarily more effective than sign language
This is because, again, sign language is not the same as English or Bahasa Malaysia. In many forms of sign language, word order is modified so that communication is quicker.
For example, you could say ‘I am sleepy’ in English, but that could translate to ‘Sleepy, I’ when signed.
Of course, writing notes is still great if you don’t understand any sign language. Just keep in mind that an individual’s fluency in sign language doesn’t correspond to their fluency in spoken and written languages.
Focus on the individual with deafness, not their interpreter
Keep in mind that an interpreter acts as a medium of communication between you and an individual with deafness.
In such conversations, the person you are speaking to is NOT the interpreter, but the individual with deafness.
Avoid focusing on the interpreter and saying something like ‘Please ask him/her if they have eaten yet’. Speak to the individual with deafness directly.
Not only is this more respectful, it also avoids making the intended audience feel like they’re excluded from their own conversation.
Bureau Of Internet Accessibility (2022) 5 Myths About Sign Language [Accessed 6 June 2023] Available at: https://www.boia.org/blog/5-myths-about-sign-language
Francie Manhardt (2016) The 4 biggest myths about sign languages [Accessed 6 June 2023] Available at: https://blog.donders.ru.nl/?p=6029&lang=en