Tower of Babel

16 03 2007

It’s not easy being deaf and trying to learn a foreign language. I have learned Irish (it’s compulsory at school in Ireland), German (at school), Spanish (I lived there for some time) and Japanese (at university). But hey, it’s not impossible. My theory is that once you have learned your first spoken language, you lay down the building blocks for learning another language. Once you’ve mastered one, it gets easier to master another. Of course, it helps if the language gene runs in the family, which it does in mine. Being deaf, you have to learn spoken language as you would learn a foreign language, because you can’t just hear it and pick it up quicker that way, you have to put much more effort into it and plough patiently through the language books.

I have to say, I think Irish is one of the harder languages to learn, as the written language isn’t the same as the spoken language. Gaelic wikipedia, anyone?! German is straightforward, as is Spanish. And Japanese? Heh. The grammatical structure and spoken sounds are similar to German, but it’s a challenge to learn the kanji (chinese characters) as well. I thought, well, if the most stupid person in Japan can speak Japanese (and I’m not stupid), then I should be able to speak it too. Pick up a foreign language dictionary and have a look at the preface, where the pronunciation key is. If you can pronounce the sounds correctly, you can speak the language. One tip – don’t try Chinese unless you’ve got a good memory – changing the stress on a vowel will completely change the meaning, and imagine trying to remember all those intonations!

So, how does a deaf person learn to speak a language when they can’t hear it? First I learned to read. Oh boy, could I READ! Reading with my mum every day, I was able to read by the time I was three. I then learned how to lip read, learning what the correct lip shapes were for each sound, how to make them correctly, and how to recognise them on other people. When I was nine, I spent a tortuous year having speech therapy and learning English – I didn’t do anything else. I remember crying with despair when I was made to study, yet again, grammar exercises set for sixteen year olds. That was so hard. But perseverance paid off in the end, and my command of English made it easier to progress in other languages. From then on, my teachers were always telling me to shut up – who’s been kissing the Blarney stone then?!

Speaking of Babel, have you seen the recently released film starring Brad Pitt? Whilst scenes are subtitled where there is English, Spanish, Arabic and sign language, there are no subtitles where Japanese is spoken. So the deaf Japanese audience is left out….how ironic is that?




5 responses

17 03 2007
Ken Rose

Being another polyglot (ASL being my SEVENTH laguage), I was wondering about what you thought about Written Chinese or Kanji being taught to Deaf Students (being MEANING-based, as opposed to Phonetically-based), and would this help Deaf Literacy around the world.

The Chinese system of writing has survived because it transcends the different dialects in China and can be universally read, despite one’s local dialect. It was easily adaptable to way foreign languages like japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.

Likewise, I think assigning one sign to one character, could provide a universal system for Deaf people coulsd communicate worldwide. (With appropriate inflection, as Japanese does with the Kanji.)

A world-wide system of communication for Deaf people would unite the whole Deaf World.

17 03 2007

I do think kanji would be a useful tool in conjunction with a fully developed international sign language, especially as Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world. Thanks for the interesting observation.

18 03 2007
Ken Rose

re: a fully developed International Sign Language.

You have to look to the Managuan Miracle, Nicaraguan Sign Language, a linguistically complete Language worked out within a community of Deaf Nicaraguans, with no language between them.

Given the ability of 2-to-6 being able to work ut a fully grammatiacl language between themselves, putting a bunch of native Deaf signers in an Inernational school, with proportional repreentation from every Natural Sign Language, THEY would come up with s Natural International Sign Language, with a fully developped Grammar, better than any Linguist could.

9 04 2007
North of the Stupid Line » Learning Japanese

[…] you’re new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!I was reading this post by funnyoldlife and it brought to mind the time when I considered studying Law and Japanese at […]

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