Why is British Sign Language important

The international differences in sign language - an interview with university lecturer Liona Paulus

There are around 200 different sign languages ​​worldwide, around 60 of them have so far been researched and more or less documented. Liona Paulus, lecturer in the master's degree in sign language interpreting at the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Idstein and herself deaf, deals in her dissertation with comparing German and Brazilian sign language. An occasion for us to ask you about the international nature of sign languages ​​and to learn something about the different ways of dealing with deaf people in Germany and Brazil.

Ms. Paulus, many people do not even know that there is a multitude of sign languages, they assume that one - internationally valid - sign language exists. Why is that like that?

Laypeople generally make the mistake of equating sign language with pantomime. And pantomime is generally understood by everyone around the world. So they have no idea that there are dialects and foreign languages ​​here too. Sign language is very differentiated, in addition to hand movements, facial expressions, the movements of eyebrows and lids, the posture of the head and upper body as well as mouth gestures play an important role. A tiny change in these elements can change the meaning of what is being said. An example: If I bring my hand, shaped like a mug, to my mouth, it basically means “I drink”. If I raise my eyebrows, it becomes a question: “Am I drinking?”. If you want to have a conversation here, you have to look carefully and have the ability to notice and decode these changes very quickly.

Would you like to make German Sign Language your job? Find out more about the master’s degree or further training in Sign language interpreting at Fresenius University:

Is there still a kind of "world language" as English is among the spoken languages?

Yes. This is the American Sign Language (ASL) officially spoken in the United States and Canada. It is the most researched sign language to date and is widespread in many countries - mainly in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia - because American missionaries brought the ASL there. The “International Sign” is exciting: This is a vital and often “spontaneously” form of communication, similar to a pidgin language. It is used and further developed on all possible occasions - provided that the interlocutors do not have a common sign language. Occasions are, for example, international conferences, the Deaflympics (the expression for the summer and winter games of the pigeons), art or theater festivals, everything by and for sign speakers. The result is therefore very impressive: a deaf German is able not only to communicate with a like-minded person from China within a few hours or days, but also to exchange ideas on complex topics such as politics, feelings or humor. This is also one of the reasons why deaf people are very fond of traveling and quickly make friends on the go.

When it comes to sign languages, is it the case that people from closely related cultures - for example, Americans and English - speak the same language?

There are indeed significant differences here: American Sign Language (ASL) has much more in common with French sign language than with British. This is because French Sign Language (LSF) came to America from France in the 18th century, British Sign Language (BSL) was created locally and has remained a local language. The French sign language also has many similarities with the Brazilian, Mexican, Austrian and Russian sign languages, because there were traditions here too. The German Sign Language (DGS) is like the BSL a local language. It shows no other major relationships, except with the Israeli sign language. Because some Jewish deaf teachers and deaf students from the Israelitische Taubstummenanstalt in Berlin-Weißensee fled to Israel via London because of the reprisals by the National Socialists, revived the school there and continued to use the DGS.

What are the special features of learning a foreign sign language?

That depends on whether you already speak a sign language or not. As a DGS native speaker, I learned Brazilian Sign Language (Libras) relatively quickly, as emotional expressions and many grammatical forms are similar. Nevertheless: I only mastered Libras fluently after about three years. If someone wants to start with no previous knowledge of a sign language, up to seven years can go into the country - this also depends on the learner type, talent and personal structure. It is no different than when learning a spoken foreign language.

You are attracted to Brazil, after all you went there for a year after graduating from high school and did voluntary service in a school for the deaf. Especially with regard to the situation of people without hearing: How do you experience the differences between Germany and Brazil?

In fact, my stay there 13 years ago had a huge impact on me. It was an important break for me personally. In Germany I didn't have the opportunity to be taught in sign language. I found my school days very exhausting and frustrating due to the permanent lip-reading and time-consuming compensation strategies in obtaining information, and I needed a longer break. In Brazil I learned that even as a deaf person, I can become an educated and very satisfied person with sign language. This is actually due to the different way of dealing with deaf people: while deaf people in Germany are classified as “disabled”, in Brazil one belongs to a “linguistic minority”. The greater courtesy is noticeable in many places in everyday life: For example, there are sign language avatars on the monitors at airports. You can do your Abitur in Brazilian Sign Language anywhere in the country. Last but not least, the number of non-deaf Brazilians who are able to speak sign language is constantly increasing. I must therefore state that Germany lags far behind in comparison.

The need for sign language interpreters is high in Germany. To what extent do you improve your professional prospects if you also speak a foreign language?

If you as an interpreter have a very good command of English and ASL, BSL or International Sign in addition to German and DGS, this increases your already excellent career prospects. For example, at colleges and universities, the number of deaf employees is steadily increasing. Such language pairs are also in great demand in international, academic exchange.

Liona Paulus teaches as a university lecturer at the Georg-August University in Göttingen.