Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Hand Jive

The World keeps on changing. Everybody seems to be teaching their babies how to talk with baby sign language. One of the youngest grandnieces was teaching the still younger one how to say "more" and "eat" and "give me my bunny blanket" using hand signs. A young grandnephew, who doesn't seem interested in talking, is very good at signing "more food". When I expressed surprise, their parents assured me that it was perfectly normal and all the kids were doing it these days.

There are claims for signing as early as 6 weeks. That doesn't seem credible to me, but my little niblings were pretty young when I saw them doing it, just starting to walk pretty well.

I understand that the physical aspects of speaking are not easily learned when children are very young, but the mental equipment for communication is apparently already in place. With my kids, I remember the difficulty we had getting on their wavelength. Sometimes they were already hysterical before they could tell us what the problem was. My wife could tell the difference between a "hungry" cry and a "change me" cry, but I sure couldn't. I remember an older nephew, who is now a newly-minted lawyer, did not say a word until he was three. Fortunately, he was a contented child, but it could have been bad.

I believe this signing is a good thing. It gives children more control over their little universe and it improves their ability to interact. I suspect it makes them smarter (if that's possible). On the whole, it's such a delightful thing that it inspired me to think of a new angle.

My wife and I have always wanted to learn sign language as a family project. It seems like a lot of fun, and practical too. You could continue to converse with the kids after they got onto the bus in the morning. But learning sign language is not easy. It's a whole new vocabulary with no way to leverage your current language skills. Unless you have a deaf family member, there's not much incentive to practice either. We really never got beyond the alphabet and a few basic words.

I realize that the alphabet is a complete conversational tool, but it's also pretty slow. At any rate, my idea is that we should design a new sign language that is easy for hearing people to learn. Rather than using letter symbols as a digital conversion from the printed word, wouldn't it be better to use an analog system that corresponds to the various components of the speech system, i.e. tongue, palate, larynx. In other words, we should be able to transliterate the International Phonetic Alphabet into analogous handforms and motions where, for instance, the levels of openness for a certain vowel correspond to the degree of openness of the left hand. Maybe a consonant could be displayed by positioning the hand, analogous to the tongue, touching the other arm, analogous to the palate, in a particular place.

Once the basics were mastered, you could always refresh your memory of the details by reference to your actual speech mechanics. Presumably, you could eventually sign at a speed comparable to slow speech. You could sign easily while speaking since there would be no mental conflict between motions and thoughts. You could sign any word you knew how to say. You could sign any language you knew how to speak. You could represent accents, and you could instruct deaf people on the proper pronunciation of a given word. What do you think?

OK. There still remains the little detail of actually designing the language. I don't feel qualified to do it myself. Maybe it's already been done, but I haven't heard of any such thing. Maybe it can't be done. It seems like it should be possible, but human speech is a pretty complex system. I'm gonna be the CEO on this one. Somebody get of your duff and make it happen.

3/8/2006 12:00 AM

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At Monday, March 13, 2006 8:23:00 AM, Blogger jj mollo said...

We had an anniversary party at my sister's house this weekend and my daughters sang some choir songs in harmony. My niece's son, who can now say a few words, came back to the room climbed a chair and signed "more" until people noticed him. Everyone laughed and my daughters sang a few more songs. It's interesting that he generalized the concept of "more" and is still using the sign when he probably knows the word itself.


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