Photo courtesy of Verite Research
Raise your right hand (or your left if you are left-handed), with the palm facing forward and the fingers spread out. Now form an O with your thumb and your middle finger (keeping the other fingers straight), as if you are going to flick a carrom piece, or a bug from your desk. Then flick your middle finger forward a couple of times. That’s the sign for the number 15 in Sri Lankan Sign Language.
Now do the same with your hand in front of your face, with the palm facing left, and move it back towards your mouth as you flick: that’s shy. Then moving your hand from left to right as you flick: hot. Then with your hand near your right eye, moving in an anticlockwise circle around your face, flicking a couple of times as you go round: colour. Finally, with the same hand shape, but with your index finger touching the centre of your forehead, move your index finger straight up towards the crown of your head a few inches, flicking as you go: Kurunegala.
I had been fascinated by sign language for a long time. As a language teacher, I was interested not just in the language itself and the community who speak it, but also in how you teach, and how you learn, a language which has no spoken or written form. This article is a beginner’s perspective on my own experience of learning the language to an elementary level. But I emphasise that I am a beginner, and apologise if I have misrepresented the language in any way. In a few cases, I have simplified the signs described for the sake of clarity.
My first encounter with Sri Lankan Sign Language (SLSL) was at the Galle Children’s Festival in 2010, where I sat in on an introduction to sign language for children. Among other things, we learnt the first line of the national anthem in sign language. Some of the deaf children attending the festival sat in on the event I was organising – a trilingual reading of the children’s book Keerthihan’s Kite – together with their sign language interpreter. We decided, instead of having the sign language interpreter on the side doing a simultaneous translation just for the deaf kids, we would put her centre-stage as one of the four readers, making it a quadrilingual reading. The 30 children (aged 5-10) listened and watched while each page of the story was read first in Sinhala, then in sign language, then in Tamil, and finally in English.
During the reading, we paused frequently to reinforce key vocabulary from the story in all four languages. In this way we reviewed the words for kite, mother, grandfather, house, shop, running, laughing, and the colours red, green, blue and yellow, some of which recur frequently in the course of the story. And of course we (including we, the readers) learnt the signs for all these words as well, to the delight of the children who were able to teach them to us. I noticed several of the hearing children imitating the sign-language interpreter as she signed these words during the story.
From that moment, I wanted to learn SLSL. I finally got the chance earlier this year, when I followed a beginners’ class at the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon.
There is a common misconception that sign language is an international language of the deaf. But this is not the case. Different countries have their own sign languages, and often different dialects within the same country; and these boundaries do not necessarily correspond with spoken languages, or with national borders. The two most widespread sign languages in the English-speaking world are American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL), which are very different from each other. ASL is widely spoken in the US and Canada, and with variations in a number of other countries. BSL is spoken in the UK, and the sign languages spoken in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, India and Sri Lanka are related to it.
Even within Sri Lanka, there were/are several distinct sign languages which evolved in different parts of the island among separate deaf communities. SLSL is a relatively recent attempt to standardise the sign language used island wide, with its origins during colonial times when the first deaf schools were established. The advantages of such standardisation are clear where limited funds are available to promote sign language education, offer interpretation facilities on TV and in courts, and to provide other services for deaf people. It is also logical in the age of modern communication technology. But the resulting loss of different local dialects is a shame. This is particularly felt in Jaffna, where a distinct sign language exists which is in danger of being subsumed by SLSL – an unfortunate reflection of wider language issues faced by the Tamil-speaking Jaffna community. But it is important to emphasise that sign language is independent of spoken languages: just as there is no such thing as ‘English sign language’, there is no ‘Sinhala sign language’ or ‘Tamil sign language’ either.
Sign language is ‘spoken’ using both hands, and the face, and other parts of the body. There are a number of variations in the way signs can be formed, and each speaker has their own distinctive ‘voice’. If you are right-handed, you make some signs with just your right hand, and others with both hands operating symmetrically, but more often with the right hand leading, and the left hand playing a supporting role. If you are left-handed, it is the other way round. Left-handed signs are exact mirror images of right-handed signs. And you have to be consistent: you can’t just switch hands whenever you like. A revealing example of this is the sign for Sri Lanka.
Raise your left hand with the palm facing forward and the fingers and thumb together. Your hand looks like a map of Sri Lanka: Jaffna is at the tip of your middle finger, your thumb is the Kalpitiya peninsula, and Matara is at the base of your palm. With your right index finger, point to Jaffna and then circle the island in a clockwise direction. That’s the sign for Sri Lanka. Although your left hand is the map, it’s the right hand which leads, circling around and indicating the shape of the island. And here’s the thing. If you are left-handed, you do it the other way round. Your right hand becomes the map (even though the geography looks wrong), and your left hand circles it (anticlockwise). After all, it’s just a sign, not a real map.
(Note that all the signs described from here on assume that you are right-handed. If you are left-handed, switch left and right – and also clockwise and anticlockwise.)
Learning sign language
Sign language poses a number of challenges for the learner. For example, it goes without saying that sign language does not have a written form – it is purely physical and visual. What I had not anticipated is how difficult this makes it to take notes during class. Drawings of signs, and video clips, are very helpful, but unless you are a highly skilled artist, it is impossible to make drawings as you go along, and describing the signs in words is also hard. I made a list in English or Sinhala of all the signs we learnt, but had to remember the signs themselves in my head.
I was aware that facial expressions are an integral part of sign language, but was surprised at how difficult I found this aspect of the language. Although of course we use facial expressions in spoken languages too, we probably don’t do it as much as we think we do. It is quite possible to say “That’s fantastic!” with a neutral face, relying on your tone of voice to add emphasis. But in sign language, you have to show that enthusiasm in your face. This is a particular challenge for a beginner, struggling to remember the signs, whose natural facial expression is a frown of intense concentration while you stare at your hands in an attempt to make them do the right thing.
One aspect of both Sinhala and Tamil which makes them relatively easy for English speakers to learn is the sheer number of English words which they have incorporated, especially into the spoken language. This is of no help with sign language, where ‘words’ don’t really exist, only signs. Not only do you have to learn the signs for things commonly known by an English name such as cricket, computer and supermarket, but also for the names of places, countries, people, etc. This massively increases the number of signs you need to learn. In some cases, fingerspelling can be a convenient way of spelling out a word, but using a single sign for Kurunegala is much easier than spelling it out letter by letter.
One of the things I found hardest was numbers. This is partly because in SLSL all the numbers are signed using just the right hand, which is both physically and mentally more demanding than using both hands. Numbers 1-5 are easy, but from there on they get harder. I had a particular problem with the number 9.
Hold your right hand up with the palm facing forward and the fingers spread out. That’s the number 5. Now fold over your little finger only, keeping the thumb and other three fingers straight, for the number 9. I find it physically impossible to do this without the third finger also folding over (which is the number 8). You might have had the same problem. I can only achieve it by co-opting my left hand to hold down the pesky pinky, or by pressing it painfully into my palm while forcing the third finger to straighten.
But for every challenge, there is a compensating aspect of sign language which makes it very rewarding. Above all, it is great fun! And it is entirely unlike any other language you have learnt before. Forget reading, writing, listening and speaking; this is just watching and doing. When you learn a new word in a spoken language, you have to learn how it is written and how it is pronounced, and there is a good chance that you might confuse it with other words from other languages. No such fear here. Signs bear absolutely no relation to the ‘words’ of any spoken language. This combined with the visual/kinaesthetic nature of the language make the signs highly memorable.
Plus, a lot of the signs are very intuitive. If you had to guess the signs for money, time, book, phone or kotturoti, or verbs such aswrite, run, swim, drive or scold, there is a fair chance you would get them right. Even if you didn’t, there is a very good chance that you would be able to make yourself understood, and that you would understand the ‘correct’ sign when you saw it. Other signs can easily be recognised by anyone who is familiar with everyday Sri Lankan body language!
And just as you can mime an action such as running, swimming or driving, you can try miming anything if you don’t know how to sign it. This is the strategy we use in any spoken language when we don’t have the words for what we are trying to express. In my experience, deaf people are masters of mime when they have to communicate with someone who doesn’t know sign language – a situation they find themselves in on an everyday basis. Another strategy they employ in this situation is using the index finger of the right hand to ‘write’ numbers on the palm of the left hand, for example to express prices and dates. I will certainly be resorting to this method when I have to say the year 1999 in sign language.
I have emphasised the lack of overlap between sign language and written languages. But there is one respect in which they do overlap, which is fingerspelling. When I was at primary school, we were taught the 26 letters of the British Sign Language (BSL) fingerspelling alphabet, and I never forgot them. I’m sure it wasn’t part of any syllabus, but of course it should be. Until now I never had any reason to use this skill, but 50 years later it has proved extremely useful in the context of SLSL, which incorporates the letters of the BSL alphabet to a surprising extent.
Users of SLSL are familiar with the BSL alphabet, so you can spell out a word if there isn’t a sign for it, or if you don’t know the sign. But this will only work if the person you are talking to is familiar with the word: you can spell out bus or Kandy or Rajapakse, but not necessarily a more obscure English word. There are also fingerspelling alphabets for Sinhala and Tamil, which are used to spell out words in those languages. These play an important role in the educational context, but they are not integrated into the language to the same extent, probably because they have been developed more recently.
The letters of the BSL alphabet are used for much more than just spelling out words. For example, the letter C (make a C shape with the thumb and index finger of your right hand) is the sign for Colombo. It’s also the sign for cancer. The difference? A small twist of the fingers for cancer, but mainly it’s in your face: a neutral expression for Colombo, a pained expression for cancer, while also mouthing the words. Of course, as in any language, context also plays a key role in distinguishing signs such as these which might otherwise be confused.
Another example from BSL: Form the letter C as above, then imagine you are holding the rim of a hot cup, and take a sip. Coffee.
The BSL alphabet is easy to learn, and can be found online (but remember the ASL alphabet is completely different). The five vowels are a good place to start. Raise your left hand with the palm forward and fingers apart, and then, with your right index finger, touch the tip of your left thumb (that’s A), then your left index finger (E), then the middle finger (I), the third finger (O) and the little finger (U). And at least half of the consonant letters (like C described above) are based on the shape of the written letter.
BSL letters are used in SLSL for the months (J,F,M, etc., with variations to distinguish, say, April and August); for some days of the week; for some common words such as friend (F), young (Y), question (Q) and rupees (RS); and in numerous other contexts. In most cases, it is not just the letter itself, but some variation on it. Sometimes a letter is combined with another sign with a particular meaning: G + children = grandchildren, P + book = passport.
Place names nicely illustrate the way BSL letters are integrated into SLSL. Colombo is the only place known by a single letter (C); others may have two letters (GL = Galle, VV = Vavuniya), or a letter combined with another sign (G5 = Gampaha, S + rock = Sigiriya, salt + H = Hambantota).
Can you guess the common Sri Lankan place names described below?
- First, touch your tooth with your right index finger. Then sign the letter K.
- Touch your earlobe with your right thumb and index finger (gem). Then the letter R.
- Brush the first 3 fingers of your right hand across your forehead from left to right (Tamil). Then the letter J.
- Touch the right side of your nose with the first two fingers of your right hand (a variation on the letter N). Then hold both fists up and shiver (cold!).
- First, the letter P. Then hold both fists in front of you, face up, about a foot apart (and think of a famous statue).
- Raise your left hand with the palm forward and fingers splayed, then bend your right index finger and place the knuckle in the middle of your left palm, with the finger pointing forward. Then wiggle your left hand to the left and right (peacock!). Then cup your right hand with the fingers apart (as if you are holding a rock).
- Bend the first two fingers of your right hand (with the other fingers closed) and hold them in front of your mouth like a hooked beak (parrot).
- Form an O with the thumb and middle finger of your right hand (keeping the other fingers straight). Then touch the centre of your forehead with your index finger, and move your hand straight up towards the crown of your head, flicking your middle finger as you go.
- Nuwara Eliya
- Moneragala (not based on a letter, but a direct translation of the Sinhala name: peacock rock)
- Kilinochchi (kili is the Tamil word for parrot)
- Kurunegala (described earlier – just testing!)
The deaf community in Sri Lanka has a strong sense of community. This community includes not only deaf people themselves, but also their family members who are speakers of sign language, and the hearing teachers and interpreters who work with them. I had not met any members of this community before, but during the course I was lucky enough to meet a few, and to practise my rudimentary signing, on two occasions, first in Colombo and then in a village in the Matale district. At the event I attended in Colombo Brayan Susantha, President of the Sri Lanka Central Federation of the Deaf, gave a beautifully expressive speech in sign language. Later I saw him standing alone a few feet away from a table, apparently having an animated conversation in sign language with the table. Then I saw his phone on the table, propped up at just the right angle. This brought home for me just how much the lives of the deaf community have been transformed and enriched by the arrival of the smartphone.
Every member of the deaf community is known by a ‘sign name’. Most of these names seem to be rather understated little movements, for example of a finger on the face, rather than expansive hand gestures. When someone asked me if I had a sign name, I tried to make one up for myself. I was met with a blank look of incomprehension. I think my attempt at self-baptism already meant something else. I was informed that you can’t just make up your own sign name, it has to be given to you by a member of the community. I am still not sure what this initiation ritual involves, but I know that if or when I ever have my own sign name, it will feel like a significant moment.
(I would like to thank Manique Gunaratne of the Employers’ Federation, who organised the class I attended, and my teachers Chammi Dias and Janaka Sampath. Thanks also to Brian de Croos for his help.)