Rant: Why I think Sign Language Education should be free
I had been curious about sign languages before, but they kind of seemed scary to learn; after all, all my language education comes from books and websites, so it’s kind of intimidating to learn one that you can’t actually write (more on that later).
So I’ve been watching Switched At Birth, and I think to myself, “hey, Rex, maybe you should learn some sign languages; after all, you’re a language vlogger, and this is an area that many people neglect”. And then I respond to myself, “Y’know what, Rex? That is actually a great idea”. I already picked a few words of ASL, but since I don’t intend to visit the US soon, I figure Mexican Sign Language (LSM) should be my go. So I go online and google “curso de lengua de señas mexicana”.
There is exactly one resource: the EscuelaParaSordos website (SchoolForTheDeaf in Spanish). They offer an online course, but it’s a bit expensive: MXN$2,500. Now, this isn’t an exorbitant amount (for context, a can of Coke is $9), but one thing to consider is that the minimum wage in Mexico is around $70/DAY, so for families in poverty this ends up being prohibitive. And what does this mean? Homesign thrives in Mexico, of course! Deaf poor people are being deprived of the chance to learn their own language, because they can’t afford it. They could go to a special needs school, sure, but those are very few and far apart in our country, not to mention the stigma that it carries in a very prejudiced culture to need special education. Best case scenario, Televisa picks you up with a financial aid and uses you for their tax-exemption pity party that dehumanises people with disabilities, and then they throw you out when you turn twelve because fuck you, teens aren’t pitiful; if you can’t make us money, we don’t want you. Worst case scenario, you grow up in a shitty family that won’t bother trying to communicate with you and they get rid of you ASAP, forever impairing your chance of ever getting any language skills at all.
Now, you could argue that “hey, this is 2016, I’m sure there are plenty of resources out there by volunteers”. Well, here we stumble into another problem: people aren’t learning LSM, so they won’t make any resources. There are very few LSM videos on YouTube, and most of them are short lists of really basic vocabulary. Don’t get me wrong; I applaud the few who have given it a try, but it’s not enough for two reasons. The first, and the most obvious, is that most of these give up after realising it’s not that easy to climb to YouTube fame (thrust me, I’ve been at it for months already and I barely pass the 50 subscribers mark). Second, and most important, is that in most cases they’re native speakers with no teaching or linguistics training. I really appreciate the effort they’ve made, and I’ll encourage them to keep at it no matter what, but the sad truth is that, while being a native speaker is a fantastic head-start, any language professional will tell you that it’s not nearly enough qualification to teach languages. You need to know how to teach; you need to study grammar, and morphology, and phonetics (before you ask, yes, sign languages have phonetics; I’m not entirely sure of how it works, but it is definitely a recognised branch of sign linguistics). they need to be able to provide practice material, especially for online courses; they need to answer questions about how or why something’s done. And, especially with non-written languages like LSM or ASL, they need to be able to provide extensive vocabulary lists to the students.
I know some other languages like BSL have free courses for the GenPop, but many others don’t, and this is incredibly discouraging for deaf people in poverty, families and friends of deaf people, language hobbyists, and the population in general. I’ve been asking around for weeks and I can’t seem to find anyone who knows where my state’s school for the deaf is located, much less if they have any kind of courses. And the thing is that, without these, many deaf people can’t communicate with the world around them, and that has consequences for the future. Since people don’t know LSM, linguists can’t study it properly. If it isn’t studied, there is no scientific literature about it, and it all becomes a vicious cycle that ends with the extinction of a beautiful language because government institutions couldn’t be arsed to teach it.
I’ll close with this. My school teaches English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, Mandarin, Hebrew, Russian, German and Spanish as a Second Language. We’re the most renowned institution that both teaches languages at an accessible price and is known by the whole southwest. Yet there is no LSM course. This is an official language of Mexico, and it’s not being taught at literally the one place people think of when they say “hey, I want to learn a new language”. I don’t know why things are this way, but it needs to change now. For the sake of the deaf, for the sake of linguistics, and for the sake of society. We’re making so much progress, and yet we can’t communicate with our own people. This isolation needs to stop.