I was recently introduced into the wonderful world of Sign Language. But not just any sign language, Reunionese Creole sign language! Well, 40% of it anyway.
I originally signed up for the sign language course because I thought it might be interesting, as a language teacher, to see how a completely different language is taught. I was keen to pick up on some new teaching techniques and thought it might also be fun to be able to have a basic conversation in sign language.
What I hadn’t realized was that learning to sign could go way beyond just learning a new language. From the very first lesson, our teacher Emmanuelle, who is deaf, made us understand that going into a sign language classroom meant going into a world of silence. A world where speaking instead of signing is inappropriate because it would cast her aside. So off with the chatting and the side jokes, and into a world where in order to communicate we must look into each other’s eyes and be mindful of all our gestures.
I was amazed to learn that sign language isn’t one universal language, although there is an international sign language called International Sign, which is mainly used at international meetings. There are in fact over three hundred different sign languages around the world, as well as regional dialects! The sign language I’m learning is actually 60% LSF – Langue des Signes Française, or French Sign Language, and 40% Reunionese Creole. I feel silly now to have thought there could be only one sign language, especially as I studied sociolinguistics and did research into language varieties.
I’ve also learned to what extent language and culture and intrinsically linked. I speak Portuguese, English and French, and have always known that understanding a culture is an important part of learning a foreign language. But learning sign language takes this to a whole different level. I think this is because we get so used to our native languages or to our second languages that we forget to question the origins of the words and expressions we use, and we fail to notice the link between these words and expressions and our cultures. Learning to sign makes us ask those questions and notice those links because that knowledge comes in really handy when trying to remember the signs. For example, the sign for ‘Ste Rose’ is lava flowing around a building.
Doing this sign language course has therefore been more than just a way to pick up new teaching techniques. It’s really been an eye-opener, and a very humbling introduction into the silent world of Reunionese culture!
To be keen – être désireux
To pick up on – apprendre
Beyond – au-delà
Deaf – sourds
To cast someone aside – mettre qqn de côté
Off with – arrêter
Side jokes – plaisanterie
To be mindful – être attentif
To feel silly – sentir idiot
Linked – lié
To fail – échouer
To notice – remarquer
To flow – s’écouler
Therefore – donc
An eye-opener – une revelation