IMAGINE a language that can’t be written. Hundreds of thousands of people speak it, but they have no way to read a newspaper or study a schoolbook in the language they use all day long.
That is the situation of the quarter-million or more deaf people in North America whose primary language is American Sign Language. Although they form a vast linguistic minority, their language, as complex as any spoken one, has by its very nature defied most attempts to write it down.
In recent years, however, a system of graphic symbols based on dance notation has allowed the world’s signed languages to be captured on paper. What’s more, the system’s advocates say, it may furnish deaf children with a long-sought bridge to literacy in English and other spoken languages, often a great struggle for signers.
But despite its utility, the system, called SignWriting, has yet to be widely adopted by deaf people: for many, the issue of whether signed languages need to be written at all remains an open question. ”The written form is used by a small number of educated people,” Valerie Sutton, the creator of SignWriting, said in a telephone interview from her office in La Jolla, Calif.
American Sign Language is not English. Spoken in the United States and parts of Canada, it uses word orders and grammatical constructs not found in English (in certain respects it resembles Navajo).
For a deaf child whose first language is A.S.L., English — that is, written English — must be learned as a foreign language, just as a hearing person might study Sanskrit. But there is a catch: ”The letters of the alphabet are based on sounds they can’t hear,” Ms. Sutton explained. For this reason, many deaf students never become fully literate in English, a perennial concern of educators. According to a long-term study by the Gallaudet Research Institute in Washington, deaf high school seniors score, on average, just below the fourth-grade level on standardized reading tests.