Sign language explored at IDays

Interactive booth presents culture of sign language

When considering a new language to learn, most think French, Spanish or maybe Mandarin, but not sign language. A booth on Student Street in Old Main took a twist on the theme during International Days, sharing the culture of sign language from around the world. With over 80 different sign languages practiced globally, students could pick up sheets of sign alphabets in different languages including ASL, Japanese and Spanish.

The aim of the booth was to educate students on the history of sign language in an interactive and engaging way, while also teaching students a few basic signs between their classes.

Neil Monsen, Coral Richards, Corrina Matthews, Tammy Monsen and Chantal Hogbin sign “Very nice to meet you,” in ASL. (Ashley Wadhwani/The Omega)

Neil Monsen, Coral Richards, Corrina Matthews, Tammy Monsen and Chantal Hogbin sign “Very nice to meet you,” in ASL. (Ashley Wadhwani/The Omega)

Nationally, Canada acknowledges five different types of sign language: American Sign Language (ASL), French Sign Language (QSL), Maritimes Sign Language (MSL), Inuit Sign Language (ISL) and Signed language, a form that follows a word-for- word translation from spoken English.

Sign language has similar cultural components to spoken languages with accents and dialect. If anything was to be learned at the booth, it was that sign language is not a translation of spoken languages, but a language of its own. According to Tammy and Neil Monsen, this concept is often misunderstood.

“People think [deaf people] can just read a doctors note or read a book. A lot of deaf people don’t comprehend English because English is not sign language – they’re two different languages,” Tammy said.

Both Tammy and Neil Monsen picked up sign language in support of their hard-of-hearing and deaf friends. It took them 16 weeks to learn ASL through a once-a-week course, and they have honed their signing through practicing with friends. Since learning to sign, their circle of friends has grown.

“It’s opened up a world of friendships for us that we would never have had the opportunity to ever meet,” Tammy Monsen said.

“That can never be over-emphasized,” Neil Monsen added. “The one thing I found is how much this one friend, an older gentleman, is like me. I would have never met him because I couldn’t communicate with him.”

Another misconception of deaf people is the wide range of hearing capabilities between deaf and hearing, and how this disability translates to someone’s ability to speak. According to the Canadian Hearing Society, “Some deaf individuals have clear and modulated speech. This does not preclude them from having a hearing loss or being deaf.”

“I have friends from both spectrums: ones that have gone to university and ones that have not graduated high school. Their comprehension levels are pretty much the same – some- times you have to explain it to them four or five different ways to try to grasp the concept,” Tammy Monsen said.

The many cultural misperceptions of hearing disabilities leave those who are deaf very limited to who they can communicate with. The Monsens have friends who face this social exclusion every day.

“They like to talk about world events, the problems that are going on with ISIS and what’s going to happen in the future,” Tammy Monsen said. “Most of their families don’t know sign language. They have no one to communicate with. It’s a lonely, lonely world for most of them.”

For Neil Monsen, learning ASL has introduced him to a new world of friends and in turn made a few lives a little less lonely.

“One deaf person [told me] they starve for communication,” Neil said. “The fact that you’ll take the time – because it takes time – to stop and spell, or whatever it takes, makes them really happy.”

If you aren’t familiar with ASL signs known as “classifiers,” Neil suggested simply using the alphabet to spell the word in sign. Most of the time, they’ll respond by showing you the appropriate classifier. The Monsens agreed that ASL was quick to pick up on with little practice.

“It’s their world. It’s their language. It’s their culture,” Tammy said. “If you let them teach you, they’ll love it. They love to teach their language.”