What factors influence the development of sign languages around the world?

Academics are undertaking a new research project to help shape our understanding of the similarities and differences between different sign languages.

Mention sign language and some people assume there is a single collection of hand gestures used around the world. Yet this could not be further from the truth as our researchers embark on a project to better understand the world’s sign languages.

Only around 30 deaf people in the world communicate using the sign language Kata Kolok. They all live in the Balinese village of Bengkala, where a recessive gene has resulted in one in 50 babies being born deaf over the last seven generations.

Yet this tiny, unique language could play a key role in unlocking the mysteries of sign languages across the world, as University of Birmingham researchers venture into a post-Covid world to understand the similarities and differences in the grammar of sign languages; peeling back the layers of complexity to fathom how societal and linguistic factors have shaped the evolution of sign languages.

Linguists highlight the objectives and methodologies of SignMorph

'SignMorph. The dynamics of sign language grammar' a new project funded by the European Research Council focusses on how sign languages have developed in different socio-cultural contexts – classified by three language types: ‘established’ macro-community sign languages; ‘established’ micro-community sign languages and ‘emerging’ sign languages. The project is led by Adam Schembri, Professor in Linguistics, who comments:

“We want to understand why sign languages share some properties and why they differ. We’re comparing three very different types of sign language –British Sign Language (BSL) is taught in schools, has a dictionary and is used to create TV programmes; a great example of a national macro-community language.

“Cambodian Sign Language is a useful example of a so-called emerging sign language, with no organised deaf community in Cambodia before the 1990s, whilst Kata Kolok allows us to examine a micro-community sign language used by a relatively small number of signers within a single village.”

“Comparing the languages promises interesting results as significant and differing social factors are at play – we want to understand the nature of interaction. For example, in the UK, deaf people may have relatively more contact with non-signers than the residents of Bengkala – a mixed community where many hearing people can use Kata Kolok.”

SignMorph aims to better understand how the similarities and differences between sign languages are shaped by aspects of the languages themselves, as well as societal factors -investigating the role of iconicity in mapping grammatical meanings onto form, how sign languages’ apparently short history has affected the processes creating grammatical structure, and the sociolinguistic structure of signing communities.

Professor Schembri added that Cambodian Sign Language had begun to emerge in Cambodia since the founding of the country’s first deaf school, whilst Maltese Sign Language may be only as old as the eldest member of Malta’s deaf community, now in their 70s. Widespread use of a language such as BSL has created linguistic changes paralleling those found between spoken Old English and contemporary English, where global usage by large numbers of second language speakers may be the reason that gender and case marking have disappeared from the language.

“Only in signing communities do you find these three different types of language: macro, micro, and emerging,” explains Professor Schembri. “Nicaraguan Sign Language first emerged in the 70s and 80s, where many deaf adults lived with their families and developed their own ’home signs’; as schools for deaf children started up, the kids pooled their individual systems for a new language to emerge.”

Post-doctoral researcher Hannah Lutzenberger joins the project team bringing a detailed focus on Kata Kolok (literally translated from Indonesian as ‘deaf talk’). Her PhD from Radboud University, in the Netherlands, explored language variation across adult Kata Kolok signers and the acquisition of Kata Kolok by deaf children.

“I’d always been interested in languages and, in my early teens, watched a movie called ‘Beyond Silence’ which kick-started my interest in sign languages,” comments Dr Lutzenberger.  “This project is tremendously exciting and not just because of the opportunity it gives me to further study the use of Kata Kolok.”

“We’re looking at reducing the gaps in our understanding of sign languages – part of the problem so far is that we’ve been comparing sign languages without using the same methodologies. We’ll be exploring similarities and differences between sign languages, as well as understanding the impact of social networks on language structure.”

Man signing in Kata KolokKata Kolok has evolved naturally and is constantly being added to. Image credit: Mark Eveleigh.

She added that there are interesting comparisons to be made, for example, between BSL and Kata Kolok. The Balinese sign language is an example of native acquisition amongst a tightly-knit community group, whereas people tended to acquire BSL late in life. BSL users tended to be born into hearing families, attend mainstream schools and live further apart. Thus, the languages differ in the type of acquisition and social network structures.

The advent of Covid and the logistical challenges imposed by global travel restrictions mean that Professor Schembri and the team are having to find creative ways around these barriers. Fieldwork may yet yield to remote interviewing of sign language users, using video conferencing techniques, but the inherent instability of internet connections in Bali may see researchers having to rely even more on a network of personal collaborators in the field.

SignMorph’s strength lies not just in the interests and expertise of its main research team, but also the valuable context provided by colleagues such as Kate Groves. A PhD student with Dr Robin Thompson in the University’s School of Psychology, her current research project focuses on language attitudes of D/deaf students in secondary school education in three countries – the United States, the UK and the Netherlands.

There are certain linkages to SignMorph in Kate’s research, as she examines whether a positively enriched home environment can create a positive attitude and academic achievement for deaf teenagers, aged 14 to 18.

“I’m interested in exploring the educational experiences of D/deaf  students; how they view the differences between signed and spoken language, as well as whether these differences create barriers or offer opportunities,” Kate explains.

“I’m in the process of recruiting students through their school in each of the three countries. Ironically, the impact of Covid has helped to make the programme better and I’m able to use the University’s excellent online resources to adapt my research methodology to work online through questionnaires and video interviews.”

Kate’s own lived experience adds an extra dimension to her research. Developing deafness soon after birth in the United States, she attended deaf baby programmes before moving into mainstream education with hearing students. Later, she chose to attend a university with a large Deaf population, gaining a Masters degree in Deaf Education from Rochester Institute of Technology and becoming a bilingual and bicultural English teacher working in the United States before moving to Europe.

“I wanted to fully experience Deaf Culture and this gave me a new perspective on education,” comments Kate. “The education experience is important for every child, but it is particularly important for D/deaf students. I hope to use my doctoral research as the basis for developing supportive curricula and training programmes in a wider educational context.

“There is much rich information contained within people’s attitudes to language. For example, when in Italy, I met a Deaf man, a native Italian Sign Language user, who was very surprised that I read books in Italian. He viewed spoken Italian as a language of oppression – a revealing viewpoint that tells us almost as much about language as the connection between language and community.”

A revealing point indeed and we should remember that signed languages are not invented systems, but natural languages which develop spontaneously whenever deaf people form a community. Professor Schembri and the team believe that the interaction of these communities – both internally and with the world around them – will help to unlock greater understanding of variation and change in all language communities, both deaf and hearing.

Images courtesy of Mark Eveleigh


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