We believe that we are all ears until the day we realize that language enters our eyes. It can happen to us when we look at the body language of someone who is far away, someone who speaks but whom we cannot hear, or when we disembark as aliens in a country where the letters on posters or menus do not tell us anything and whose language we do not understand. , no matter how they speak to us slowly – or shouting. Or it can happen to us, like me, the first time we see a sign language interpreter.
They were two of my classmates in college. Dressed in black, they took turns interpreting a teacher’s lecture to Libras. Libras is the Língua Brasileira de Sinais, the official language of the deaf community in Brazil and, together with Portuguese, the official language of the country. She remembered reading – and perhaps learning, out of curiosity – an alphabet of signs as a child. But now that I saw them, I understood that they did not spell, that they constructed sentences with meaning, a sense alien to me. It wasn’t just the hands, they moved the body. Their lips, their eyebrows, their eyes moved. Their faces were part of the speech. They were pure hypnotic expressions and although as a listener I knew what the teacher was saying, looking at them I realized that there were many signs that I could understand.
Each country has its own sign language. In the United States it is the American Sign Language (ASL), in Mexico the Mexican Sign Language, in Spain the Spanish Sign Language and in France the Langue des Signes Française (LSF). Libras, the Brazilian language, grew out of the French Sign Language. In 1857 the French teacher Eduard Huet opened the first school for the deaf in Brazil and began to teach his students the French Sign Language, but incorporating the signs that the Brazilian deaf used informally.
The World Federation of the Deaf points out that approximately 72 million deaf people inhabit the planet: a population slightly larger than Thailand and slightly smaller than Germany. And these people use more than 300 different sign languages. At international meetings, the International Signing System is used, which has a limited lexicon and attempts to match common signs in many sign languages. That is, it is a language pidgin, a mixed language created from a base to which elements from other languages are added.
We can’t trace when they started, but perhaps it happened before humans began communicating with oral languages. Plato, in the Cratylus dialogue of 360 BC, writes that his teacher, Socrates, had said: “Answer me this: if we had neither voice nor language and we wanted to express things reciprocally, would we not try, as now the deaf, manifest them with the hands, the head and the rest of the body? “.
For the deaf, access to sign language, to interpreters to help them communicate with the world that depends on sound, is a right denied in many places. When I saw my classmates interpret any lecture, when I coincided in classes with a deaf colleague accompanied by an interpreter from the university and we could exchange comments about what was discussed in that class, I felt that that little university bubble was a more just world. I thought about hospitals, where I had never seen interpreters, where I never studied in primary or secondary school with a deaf person, how they would defend themselves in court or move through bureaucratic labyrinths if they were not accompanied by an interpreter. I was thinking about how deaf people sometimes seem invisible.
We have to understand that sign languages are independent languages: they do not develop from the spoken language of the place where they originate, they are not an ‘equivalent’ of every oral language that exists on the planet. And they are tied to the culture: the signs of spoons and cutlery do not exist in countries where you eat with chopsticks.
This Thursday is September 23 and since 2018 the UN celebrates the International Day of Sign Languages on this date, to remind the world of the importance of these for the full realization of the human rights of deaf people. On a day like today, in 1951, the World Federation of the Deaf was founded. Today we should all learn a little about the sign language spoken in our community. Today is a day to realize that sometimes, the world fits in a gesture. And that gesture can open the world to someone else.