Do You Know What Is Being
Signed To Your Child?
A Quick Guide for the Novice Parent
Parents new to the world of sign language may not be aware that sign encompasses various methods and even languages. Just as different countries have difference oral languages, they also have different sign languages. The topic of sign language in the Unites States and in the world at large is a broad one. Professionals in the field don't agree on what might be best to use with our children.
The two languages that are signed in the US are English and American Sign Language.
ASL is the third most commonly used language in America, and is the most common language of the Deaf. ASL has a rich history and heritage.
English and ASL differ greatly in structure, grammar and usage. People not familiar with ASL assume that since this is America, where our primary oral language is English, and since ASL has the word American in it that it must represent the English language. Sorry, wrong assumption! ASL and English are as different as Spanish and English.
Unlike English, ASL has no written form. If translated literally into English, it would be unrecognizable that way. When interpreters voice for the ASL signer, they are transposing one language into another.
ASL, as a visual language, is entirely conceptual in nature. For this reason, the object of the sentence is signed first. For the example, when signing "The child ran home," the sentence would start with home, and then introduce the child running to the home through the visual features of sign language. For this and many other reasons, if one is signing true ASL, one would not be voicing English as they sign.
What are people signing, then, as they voice English? There are two options. Think of English and ASL being on opposite sides of a line. What would we call the middle?
Perhaps you have heard of CASE (Conceptually Accurate Signed English) and PSE (Pidgin Signed English). Both of these systems are not using complete English or complete ASL, they are using ASL signs in English word order of subject-verb-object. Signing that approximates English would be Signed English (SE), and signing that literally puts English on the hands is Signing Exact English (also known as SEE or SEE2). SEE is based on ASL, with 70% of its signs taken from ASL, but adding plurals, pronouns, many synonyms or word families, and affixes.
Parents, if you choose sign language as a tool for your child, make sure you understand all the systems and see what is going to fit your family. Do you want your child learning more than one language, and if so, what system will you use? Will you try and separate the languages or use PSE and leave it to your child to separate the languages? As part of the IEP team, be clear about the sign language you use at home and reinforce that in the IEP. A word of caution is that terms can be misinterpreted in many ways. For example, I have met people who say they use ASL, but they are voicing as they sign. This is actually PSE. PSE can vary in the amount of signs that are voiced, the style ranging from close to ASL to closer to English. Parents need to be clear about what they know to be the child's needs regarding expressive and receptive sign.
When someone says "English sign system," what do they mean? It depends. It could be PSE, CASE, SEE2 or SE. Typically, students in interpreter training programs are trained in ASL and PSE/CASE. So, if a consumer mentions that he or she would prefer English, the assumption is that the consumer wants PSE. If what is desired is to see each word and tenses/plurals and English grammar, the consumer wants to have a SEE interpreter. Parents need to ensure that they understand the differences in sign systems and ASL and let interpreters and IEP teams know what is preferred. Eventually, your child also needs to be able to articulate what his or her interpreting needs are as he grows older. With all the issues on our minds, this one can seem like a large mountain to climb. But it is a mountain worth climbing, and when we have a greater understanding of this, we can better advocate for our children and look forward to what they will accomplish.