Signed language, symbolism, and reflections on inclusion

(by Eileen Dombrowski, from OUP blog) I learned something important from my friend Lynx – something important for how I think about TOK and knowledge. It was almost seven years ago. I was interviewing her, as an experienced New Zealand Sign Language interpreter, on how signed languages worked and what they tell us about the nature of language. I was keenly interested in the ideas – and on using my laptop to make a video for the very first time. Then, when I had finally edited the interview, I passed it to Lynx for her response. It was immediate. “Can we add closed captions?” she asked. I was mystified. Why would we do that? “I wouldn’t like to talk about the Deaf community and their knowledge,” she explained, “without their having access to what I’m saying.” In an abrupt shift of perspective, I suddenly thought about the function of the closed captions I had always ignored – and realized that she was right. I had anchored my thinking entirely in my own TOK community and relationships of ideas. As an interpreter between hearing and Deaf groups, Lynx was much more fully attuned to the people. She was talking about inclusion and respect.

I’ve often thought of that moment in the past few years as I consider what “shared knowledge” means in TOK, and how it intersects with “personal knowledge”. The flow of knowledge between the public and general sphere and a private and personal one can often hit rough patches. I think of access to information held on people, with legal battles sometimes over disclosure. I think of DNA samples taken of populations, and of language and culture recorded and interpreted by outsiders. I think, in my own country, of the indigenous voices currently speaking for themselves, about themselves, and the significance of that perspective. I think of all the world literature I’ve read and taught, with all the perspectives demanding to be included in any concept of the knowledge of the world. Inclusion and respect. As we talk about knowledge, we are also talking about the people who hold it.

And, in rueful moments recently, I have been deeply appreciating those closed captions that for so many years were a feature I scarcely noticed. My personal knowledge now involves greater experience and understanding!

Video interview: Signed languages and knowledge

I’m including here that video that Lynx and I made together back in 2011. Please have patience with my first-ever video, done on my home table! Drawing on her expertise as an interpreter between New Zealand Sign Language and English, Lynx responded to a number of TOK questions in the 36 minutes that I chopped down to 11:

  • “Signs” (such as traffic signs) and “language” (such as English or Thai) have different degrees of abstraction and symbolism.  Is “signed language” actually a language?  Is it a fully symbolic system,  with a grammar to operate it?
  • Do signed languages influence thought in the ways that spoken languages are argued to do?
  • Are signed languages embedded, as other languages are, within cultures?

As Lynx explains, the answer to each of these questions is “yes”.

Further resource: Oliver Sacks’ Seeing Voices

(Below I add some notes that I made at the time on a book I was recommending.)

For anyone interested in learning more about sign language and its role for the Deaf, I recommend the book by Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices.  In it, Sack quotes (p. 87) Noam Chomsky, the linguist who first proposed that the deep structure of language, human symbolic capacity, was innate:

“The potentials for language are in us all – this is easy to understand.  But that the potentials for a visual language mode should also be so great – this is astonishing, and would hardly be anticipated if visual language did not actually occur.”

Sacks also describes his own reaction, after all his research for his book, when he entered the Deaf community of Gallaudet College.   The personal contact changed his knowledge in a way that we appreciate in TOK; even though he was not a member of the community, he felt his theoretical knowledge change with the addition of personal experience:

“When I had visited Gallaudet in 1986 and 1987, I found it an astonishing and moving experience.  I had never before seen an entire community of the deaf, nor had I quite realized (even though I knew this theoretically) that Sign might indeed be a complete language – a language equally suitable for making love or speeches, for flirtation or mathematics.  I had to see philosophy and chemistry classes in Sign; I had to see the absolutely silent mathematics department at work; to see deaf bards, Sign poetry, on the campus, and the range and depth of the Gallaudet theater; I had to see the wonderful social scene in the student bar, with hands flying in all directions as a hundred separate conversations proceeded – I had to see all this for myself before I could be moved from my previous ‘medicalization’ of deafness.” (page 129)

In a Theory of Knowledge class, Sign clearly raises a number of knowledge questions – ones regarding the connection between sense perception and language, between language and thought, and between both the latter and cultural perspectives.   If we look briefly at how the Deaf have been treated historically, it also raises questions about how we classify ourselves and “others” — and the negative values often assigned to difference.

Perhaps sign language raises further questions yet about the difficulties of imagining beyond the familiar in our knowledge.  In his book, Oliver Sacks muses on the resistance for many years to the idea that signed languages could be true languages and that educational systems should employ them for the Deaf:

“Our extraordinary difficulty in even imagining a spatial grammar, a spatial syntax, a spatial language – imagining a linguistic use of space – may stem from the fact that we (the hearing, who do not sign), lacking any personal experience of grammaticising space ourselves (and lacking, indeed, any cerebral substrate for it) are physiologically unable to imagine what it is like (any more than we can imagine having a tail or seeing infrared).”

Seeing Voices is a fascinating book, leaving the reader thinking not of what the deaf lack in terms of hearing but of what they possess and demonstrate in terms of alternate human capability.


“Sign Language: Knowledge and Deaf Culture”, YouTube video interview by Eileen Dombrowski with Lynx, sign language interpreter from Auckland, New Zealand.

Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices. Picador, New York, 1990.

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