We most often think of indigenous languages in the context of colonisation – languages used by people who originally inhabited regions that were later colonised. These are the languages that the UN had in mind when it stated a deep concern about the vast number of endangered indigenous languages. And rightly so. More than 2,400 of the about 7,000 languages used around the world today are endangered and most of these are indigenous languages in the above sense.
It’s welcome, then, that 2019 marks the International Year of Indigenous Languages, along with the awareness raising this will bring, as indigenous communities who speak these languages are often marginalised and disadvantaged. But there are other communities who speak indigenous languages that may still not receive much attention: deaf communities around the world who use sign languages.
Sign languages are fully-fledged, complex, natural languages, with their own grammar, vocabulary, and dialects. There are over 140 recorded living sign languages in the world today.
These sign languages have evolved naturally, just like spoken languages. There is no “universal” sign language that is understood by all deaf communities around the world. For example, British Sign Language and American Sign Language are completely unrelated languages; speakers of these two languages cannot understand each other without the help of an interpreter.
Overall, indigenous peoples and their languages drive much of the world’s cultural and linguistic diversity, and sign languages make up only a small portion of this. But the particular diversity that sign languages exhibit contributes tremendously to our understanding of what language is.
Sign languages are acquired and processed in the brain just like spoken languages and fulfil all the same communicative functions. Yet they do so through vastly different means. Sign languages and tactile sign languages have taught us that our capacity for language is independent of any medium.
Any part of our upper body can be involved in language production and can carry grammar, as in American Sign Language, where facial expressions have grammatical functions. We can understand languages not just by hearing, but also through sight and touch. This realisation has contributed greatly to our understanding of the capacity for language in humans.
Read more: The Conversation