Sign Language: The Silent System

I recently had the opportunity to meet Nombulelo Cekwana, Folio’s experienced South African Sign Language interpreter who shared details of her fascinating job. I was quite surprised when I learned that a country with eleven official languages had only one sign language. This fact made me think about the status of sign language in South Africa.

Let’s begin by clarifying that sign language is not universal. We may think that creating a new communication system with different varieties is not very practical. But, like spoken languages, sign languages are unfixed entities that rely on culture and evolve according to users’ needs.

Signs can be based on visual images, and speakers from different cultures may associate words with different concepts. The sign for ‘December’ in Spanish Sign Language is a good example, as it is represented by a traditional instrument played during Christmas in Spain called a ‘zambomba’.

Signs can also rely on the fingerspelling, like ‘December’ in American Sign Language, which consists of an abbreviated spelling of the word, using its first letters ‘DEC’.

Due to the lexicon differences, spelling patterns will not fit every language, as the difference between ‘January’ and the Spanish equivalent ‘enero’ shows clearly.

The result of language variation is a non-universal signing system, but also sign languages being independent of spoken languages, i.e. in countries like South Africa, the UK and the US, English is the lingua franca, but each country has a different sign language.

The sign for ‘Monday’ is an example of initialism in British and American Sign Language, as both use signs for the letter ‘M’, with the contrast that each of them uses their own fingerspelling system.

South African Sign Language uses a different system: The sign for ‘Monday’ is based on the order of the days in the week, as we can notice by comparing ‘Monday’ and ‘Tuesday’.


The absence of a direct link between signed and spoken languages can be ascribed to the evolution of sign languages. Their evolution was determined by education. As the majority of deaf children are born to hearing families, they learn their mother tongue at school. An example of the crucial role of education in the evolution of sign languages is the teaching of sign language in Ireland. Boys and girls were educated in separate schools applying different systems, which resulted in a deaf community with gender dialects. However, the gap diminished as women tended to acquire the male variety after school.

The first evidence for the use of signs to educate deaf children dates back to 15th century Spain, when a Spanish monk began using a manual alphabet to teach his deaf pupils. But it was in France where a real deaf education system was implemented for the first time in the mid-18th century by the Abbe Charles Michel de l’Épée. The French teaching method was adopted in the US when the American School for the Deaf was established in 1817 with the assistance of a French educator. In Ireland, sign language was also influenced by the French method, which was taught in the Catholic deaf institutions. In Britain, the sign language that emerged in the first school for the deaf set the basis for British Sign Language, and from there it was exported to Australia and New Zealand. The signing methods of these three countries are considered dialects of the same sign language called BANZSL (British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language).

As a consequence of this evolution, American and Irish sign languages are closer to French Sign Language than to British sign language, whereas sign language in the UK, Australia and New Zealand is quite similar.


South African Sign Language is considered a descendant of BANZSL and according to Ethnologue, the correspondence between British Sign Language and SASL is 60%. The history of South Africa is reflected in the evolution of the language, which was influenced by different signing methods. The first school for deaf white children was run by Irish nuns, who introduced Irish Sign Language. There were other schools that began using British Sign Language, the first one was established by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1881. And because of the presence of American text books, American fingerspelling was introduced.

The National Institute for the Deaf (NID) also utilises the British Sign Language System. Established by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1881, the NID would go on to become an invaluable asset to the South African deaf community: It gave rise to De la Bat, the independent school for the deaf in Worcester. Training and skills development initiatives by the NID continue to make the labour market more accessible to the deaf community, and residential care facilities provide homes to many members.

Sign language was, however, mainly used by the deaf pupils outside the classroom as it was considered an inferior mode of communication until the end of the 20th century, to the point of being forbidden in schools as a teaching method. There were also other reasons for an increasing contrast between the sign languages of different schools. Under the apartheid policies, children were separated by race, and black children were also separated by mother tongue. Nevertheless, despite the division-generated varieties, it did not result in different sign languages. Even if the system used differed from one school to the next, deaf students moved around the country and interacted with one other. Consequently, the varieties tended to converge.

Presently SASL is slowly gaining recognition. As from 2014 Sign Language is taught as a first language in South African schools for the deaf. The reference language used nowadays in deaf education throughout the country is English, and signers are more connected through the extensive use of technology. These aspects are causing standardisation of South African Sign Language, even if certain regional dialectal differences are maintained as in any natural language.

Sharing impressions with Folio’s interpreter made me think about the role of sign language in deaf people’s lives. It is of the same importance as mother-tongue language for everyone else. She amazed me with her experience of the most challenging jobs she had to perform in hospitals, like interpreting for a woman in labour or giving news about a patient’s disease. Considering the possibility of experiencing one of these situations whilst being deprived of language makes us understand the importance of sign language and the people who do valuable work so that communication is available for everybody.