Advantages of ASL GLoss for SignWriting

Stuart Thiessen sw at PASSITONSERVICES.ORG
Wed Mar 31 01:38:40 UTC 2004

Let me get two birds with one stone ... my introduction and my
responses to this comment from Stephen.

I have been deaf since 4. In many ways, I am probably a poster child
for the oralism movement in that I can do all the things that oralists
dream for deaf children. I was mainstreamed and excelled even over my
hearing peers even without interpreters or any assistance other than an
FM system for a short period in high school.  I learned sign language
late (18 years old) and my strong English background often interferes
with my ASL (though I work hard at trying to be as ASL as I can).

I am a strong advocate for ASL first, English second. (Those of you who
use other sign languages can substitute your sign language and your
national spoken language because my argument is the same whether it is
ASL and English or LSE and Spanish or LSF and French, etc.)  Why? Deaf
will always fail to be equals with hearing in English.  Why? Because we
can only use English as a written language, but not as an oral
language. Granted, there are some (and I am one of them) who can carry
a conversation in English like a hearing person one-on-one.  However,
the more people we add to the conversation, the more lost I become
until it becomes an exercise in futility. If the conversation will
include 2 or 3 or more, I always want an interpreter no matter what. It
is far less stress for me to use a language that works with my
strengths than a language that works with my weaknesses.  For deaf,
English works with our weaknesses, not our strengths.

Further, I believe that English is unnecessary inside our community.
Why should I use English to communicate with my fellow deaf?  Why
should our literature and our self-expression be conditioned on
English?  Why should our newsletters be in English?  Why should any of
our communication be in English?  ASL is our language and ASL is
perfectly adequate to communicate all that we need to communicate.
Video and SignWriting are our valuable allies in promoting and
preserving our language and culture.

For business dealings with the "outside world", English is needed,
absolutely. We need to continue to develop our skills in communicating
with the hearing world in English where we can, and use interpreters
and other avenues when we can't. But don't make knowledge of English a
requirement on the deaf world.  Not everyone is going to be able to do

I look at something that happened at the deaf church I attended this
weekend.  We were encouraged to memorize some verses.  I took the
verses and translated them into the best ASL I can, and then put the
SignWriting down.  You should have seen the glow in their eyes when
they saw it in ASL.  Not everyone has learned SignWriting, so they
asked for a gloss. That was fine.  But everyone immediately saw that
gloss was not good enough because we had to discuss about what English
word to use for that sign. My friend and I made the point that gloss
carries with it the ENGLISH definition. That definition may or may not
fit the sign well enough.  For example, there is a sign that SignWriter
glosses as ETC.  Another person in our group prefers the word DETAILS.
The value and beauty of SignWriting is that we don't have to worry
about the semantic domain of one language interfering with another
language.  After I gave them the cards, they didn't ask more about
gloss. They asked more about SignWriting.

This is my personal opinion ... we need to spend more time figuring out
the typing system whether it is ways of teaching the current system, or
ways of improving the current system so that we can type efficiently.
I like Valerie's concept. I just haven't studied it enough to know how
or where or even if it can be improved.

I think gloss will take us back to more English dominated expression. I
admit I too am guilty of the lazy method, but the reality is that for
those who are ASL-minded, it is far better to go the typing route than
the glossing route.  And we may never agree on the best gloss (not to
mention there are many signs for which I wouldn't have the slightest
idea how to gloss.)

Another comment (though Wayne or others may have more insight than I)
.... I am not sure that the Japanese or Chinese system will be entirely
helpful.  Essentially, if I understand correctly, those input methods
depend on a Romanization of their sound system.  They are essentially
typing a phonemic equivalent of the word in Roman letters and then the
input method converts it to the appropriate glyph(s) or it may show a
set of possible glyphs that fit that reading. The closest we could come
in SignWriting is not a gloss, but sign-completion strategies that pull
up possible signs containing the movement parameters that we have
already typed for that sign.

I hope this makes sense.  I don't want to sound like I am against gloss
or Stephen's work. Not at all ... each has its place as a tool.
However, I am less inclined to promote gloss because I think it will
cause greater harm than good for the cause of true ASL literacy.  I
believe in ASL literacy for its own sake, not as a gateway to English.
The ability for ASL literacy to become a gateway to English is a side
benefit, but not the goal in my judgment. If we promote gloss, then
hearing will never see SignWriting as a true writing system for sign
languages and ASL remains a coding system for English in the minds of
hearing people. I'd rather them see us typing the signs directly using
the existing or improved typing system so they can see that SignWriting
indeed allows us to transcribe the movements of our language just like
English transcribes the sounds of their language.

Sorry for the long email ... just a few of my thoughts,


On Mar 28, 2004, at 2:49 PM, Stephen Slevinski wrote:

> Wow,
> OK, I have some questions.
> How many signs per minute can a native signer type using SignWriter.
> What
> is the curve for learning SignWriter and what speeds are possible?
> I'm assuming that writing ASL Gloss is quicker.  But I'm also assuming
> that
> reading SignWriting is easier.  I know the second because I often sign
> when
> using the TTY.  I can not read ASL Gloss and understand very well.
> While ASL Glossing may loose something in the translation, is it
> adequate
> enough?  Because written English is not the same as an oral
> presentation,
> yet written English is adequate.
> If a long passage was written in SignWriting directly versus ASL
> Gloss, how
> much work would be required for each, and how adequate would the
> resulting
> SignWriting be?
> ASL Gloss is a unique development in the US because of the focus on
> oralism,
> rather than literacy.  Deaf use glossing because they know English
> words,
> but not English grammar.  The same way that hearing use PSE: ASL sign
> with
> English grammar.
> -Stephen Slevinski
> ps - sorry for the rant below, but I'm a firm believer in the value of
> English.
> I disagree with deaf knowing only a single language.  It is great to
> start
> with a signed language, but not learning the native language of a
> country is
> a big mistake (or so I believe).  To require an interpretor to get a
> job,
> education, or even deal with a laywer is a mistake.  I believe it
> traps the
> deaf individual.  If the deaf know only a single language, then they
> require
> the government to make laws that require companies to hire two people
> to
> perform a single job.  This does nothing positive for the deaf,
> because it
> builds resentment toward them.  It also encourages the stigma that
> deaf are
> handicapped.  I even believe that deafness should be removed from the
> ADA.
> However, I do believe the time spent learning to lip read and voice
> can be
> better spent on learning to read and write; both ASL and English!

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