Receptive and Expressive Writing

Valerie Sutton sutton at SIGNWRITING.ORG
Tue Aug 9 17:43:52 UTC 2005

SignWriting List
August 9, 2005

The reason SignWriting is working is that it has been around for  
three decades. A real writing system takes time to develop, because  
the users have to participate in its improvement, and they have to be  
skilled writers, before they realize what is needed...

We wrote in the Receptive mode, from 1974-1984. In that first decade,  
I started working with Deaf people in the United States. Most were  
native ASL signers, born into Deaf families, or raised in Deaf  
boarding schools. All were adults. Some knew English. Some did not.  
And we also worked with several native signers who were hearing  
people, born into Deaf families.

We ALL thought in the beginning, that Receptive was natural, since we  
face another person when we sign. We wrote that way, with the idea,  
that writing what you see the other person sign, was important. We  
assumed that reading meant reading what another person was saying...

SignWriting became a TRUE writing system, when these first native ASL  
signers became fluent in SignWriting. This is the important point.  
They were not Deaf people who had never seen or learned SignWriting.  
They were Deaf people who were very skilled at reading and writing  
SignWriting. In many cases, they could read ASL better than they  
could read English. This was an historic point, around 1984, when  
those skilled Signwriters came to me and requested that we officially  
change from writing Receptive to writing Expressive as our normal  
everyday writing system...

Who were they? Lucinda O'Grady Batch and Meriam Ina Schroeder were  
the major leaders of the Expressive movement, both Deaf born into  
Deaf families with Deaf parents. And they wrote SignWriting fluently  
daily by hand at that time...They became tired of trying to imagine  
writing someone facing them, when they were looking at their own  
hands when they expressed themselves in writing...

Of course, I did what they requested and we switched to the  
Expressive view! This was a big transition for all of us. We learned  
so much about all writing systems from this experience...

Did you know that reading spoken languages, such as English, is an  
expressive experience, and not receptive? Just because another person  
wrote the actual words you are reading, has nothing to do with it.  
For example, reading aloud, in a spoken language, is an expressive  
experience. And even if you do not read aloud, but read silently, in  
your brain, you are reading aloud, in a passive sort of way.

So our first Deaf staff members made history, and to them I will  
always be grateful. Now everyone takes the Expressive view as the  
norm...and many have told me that they could never have learned  
SignWriting without it...

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