Wednesday, July 25, 2007

2005/03/12: In favour of sign language

It has been known for many years that the time to learn languages is when very young. Three or four is the best time to start, but five or six is ok. If you learn a second language early then your brain develops general structures which make it much easier to later learn a third or forth. If, like most Australians, you only know one language then the brain hardwires itself for that language and it becomes impossible to become fluent in other languages later.

Teaching a language is the natural thing to do at pre-school and in the early years of school. Children of that age are all wired up and ready to learn languages. Teaching them other things, like mathematics, is a waste of time. Children who learn non-language subjects at that age don't do any better, all else being equal, than those that don't. But for languages it is the best, and to some extent the last, time in which to do it. The failure of education departments to act on this knowledge over the last twenty years is verging on dereliction of duty.

There is a clear cut choice for a second language that can be taught everywhere: Sign language.

Sign Language

The language of the deaf is a real language. It isn't a variant of English. It has its own grammar and structure, so it fills the role of a second language for children. And adopting it has a lot of important advantages:

  1. It will greatly facilitate the integration of deaf people into the wider community if everyone learns their language.
  2. And indeed it will provide a fulfilling job to many deaf people as teachers of sign language, either directly to small children or else to other teachers.
  3. Any of us may become deaf. Those who don't learn sign language early are never proficient.
  4. More commonly we all have laryngitis and other diseases that cause us to lose our voices at times. Having sign language makes a valuable backup.
  5. There are lots of situations where sign language is much more convenient than speech: in the library; in a noisy venue; at the theatre or music performance; when filming or hunting wildlife.

Perhaps the most interesting situation where sign language might be useful is in negotiations involving multiple people on each side. I can just imagine the Chinese putting barriers between the seating positions of visiting Australian trade negotiators so that they can't sign to each other under the table during the negotiations.

Sign language is a natural part of the human language armoury. It was famously used between the plains Indians in North America. It is almost certain that sign language preceded spoken language in the human story. This avoids the chicken-egg problem that you don't need a complex vocal system unless you have a complex language and you can't use a complex language without a complex vocal system. The fact that the brain is wired to allow language information to flow through other routes and not just our mouth and ears is the reason that we can read and write.

Summary

Currently we take pre-school and early school children who are all ready to learn languages, but not much else, and we do little to develop them. Let's teach them sign language. The kids of that age will love it and it will have all sorts of later benefits for the children themselves and for society.