South African Sign Language (SASL) is a visual-gestural language using the hands, face, torso and space in front of the signer to express meaningful utterances. SASL is recognised in the South African Constitution (1996) as the “twelfth” language of South Africa, after the eleven official languages. Entering into the exciting world of the Deaf through South African Sign Language is an amazing experience, since one learns very soon that signs are not glorified gestures, and one can only marvel at the way in which SASL can be used to express even very abstract concepts.
The Deaf community consists of people who communicate in sign language, and is not restricted to the group of deaf people whose primary language is South African Sign Language. Children of Deaf adults (CODAs) and some hearing people also communicate in sign language (and often work as interpreters). It is wrong to assume that all deaf people communicate in sign language. This situation explains why, by convention, deaf (with a lower-case ‘d’) refers to the population who has a hearing disability whereas Deaf people (with a capital ‘D’) refers to the population who makes use of South African Sign Language and who identifies itself with Deaf culture.
More and more hearing South Africans are learning sign language to improve their relationships with the approximately 1.5 million South Africans who are Deaf or hard of hearing. SASL is the only language in South Africa that is understood by all communities, regardless of whether the signers are from Zulu or Afrikaans or English or Tswana-speaking backgrounds. Some of the signs may be different, but the language structure is the same – and it is a beautiful, expressive language.
Sign languages, however, are not universal – SASL (and other signed languages such as American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language) are not related to the spoken languages used in the community. In fact, American and French Sign Languages are closely related, whereas British Sign Language is pretty different from ASL!
Learning SASL will expose you to a new cultural and linguistic community whilst at the same time helping you realise the importance of being able to communicate with and understand Deaf and Hard of Hearing people.
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IS LIP-READING AN EFFECTIVE WAY TO COMMUNICATE WITH DEAF PEOPLE?
Not really. Forty to sixty percent of English sounds look alike when spoken. Thirty percent of what is said is actually discernable or visible on the lips, and the other seventy percent is guesswork. This sets up the perfect situation for miscommunication and misunderstanding.