Written by Jane Tsay.
Image credit: Image provided by Author. Image first appeared in Tai, James H.‐Y. and Jane Tsay. (2015). Taiwan Sign Language: History, Structure, and Adaptation. In Oxford Handbook of Chinese Linguistics, eds. by William S‐Y. Wang and Chaofen Sun. UK, Oxford University Press.
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, Taiwan’s Central Disease Control Centre has been calling press conferences almost every day. However, TV viewers’ main focus during the latest pandemic news from Chen Shih-Chung seems to be on the CDC director and Minister of Health and Welfare. Because of this, many people’s attention has also been drawn to the Taiwan Sign Language interpreter standing next to him.
The Taiwan government has made it obligatory to have Taiwan Sign Language interpretation on important occasions, such as the presidential inauguration, Legislature and city council meetings, and important national policies. Still, this is probably the first time that the general public has seen Taiwan Sign Language daily.
Taiwan Sign Language (TSL) is the native language of the Deaf community in Taiwan (the capitalization indicates that it forms a cultural group united by shared experiences and language). All of the world’s sign languages have their own unique history, culture and structure. The origins of TSL are unknown, but in the earliest days, Taiwanese deaf children must have grown up at a distance from each other. Moreover, they probably only used TSL to interact with family members who were usually hearing. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, the first schools for the deaf were founded. This brought Japanese Sign Language, itself influenced by natural sign languages used in Europe. Although from 1945, TSL has continued to evolve in its own way. It still shares more than 60% of its lexicon with Japanese Sign Language and has a similar basic syntactic structure (e.g., Subject-Object-Verb word order).
Research on the linguistic structure of TSL contributes to the comparative study of sign languages around the world. By comparing sign languages in the gestural-visual modality and spoken languages in the oral-auditory modality, sign linguistics also promotes our understanding of the human capacity for language more generally. For example, both spoken and sign languages have conventionalized vocabularies. While words in spoken languages are composed of sounds (consonants, vowels, and tones in some languages), “words (signs)” in sign languages are composed of gestural elements (handshape, location, movement, and palm orientation) by similar principles and rules.Thus, in TSL “PLEASE” (signed with “B/胡hu” handshape at the forehead) and “HOPE” (signed with “X/十shi” handshape at the forehead) contrast in handshape in a similar way that Mandarin “拉 la” (pull) and “媽 ma” (mother) contrast in the initial consonant.
There are also rules at the morphological and syntactic levels. As mentioned above, TSL has “S-O-V word order,” as opposed to S-V-O word order in English and Mandarin. For example, the sentence “He likes apple” is expressed as “HE-APPLE-LIKE” in TSL. Unlike English or Mandarin, negation appears after a verb in TSL and is often in sentences-final position. The TSL sentence “TODAY-I-SCHOOL-GO-NOT” means “I’m not going to school today.” Therefore, sign linguistics falsifies the common misconception that sign languages merely “mimic gestures without grammar” (比手劃腳而無語法), showing rather that they are rich and expressive human languages in their own right. Besides, deaf children’s sign language acquisition follows a very similar timetable as hearing children’s spoken language acquisition. Neurolinguistic studies also show that sign languages, like spoken languages, are primarily processed by the brain’s left hemisphere, a phenomenon known as brain function lateralization.
The Sign Language Research Group in the Graduate Institute of Linguistics at National Chung Cheng University has been devoted to the study of TSL for more than two decades. In 2018, the Institute set up a sign linguistics track in the master’s degree program and welcomed Deaf students to research their native language.
In all countries, the hearing-impaired are a disadvantaged minority surrounded by the spoken-language majority. In Taiwan, they used to be discouraged from using their own native language, even at schools for the hearing-impaired. It is great to see that the Taiwan government has made great efforts to recognize and promote Taiwan sign language in recent years.
The Development of National Languages Act (國家語言發展法) was announced on January 9, 2019. Article 1 of this Act says: “Recognizing the multicultural nature of the nation, and to spur the transmission, revival, and development of national languages, this Act is hereby drafted.”（為尊重國家多元文化之精神，促進國家語言之傳承、復振及發展，特制定本法）And Article 3 says: “‘National language’ as referred to in this Act shall mean the natural languages and sign languages used by the different ethnic groups in Taiwan.”（本法所稱國家語言，指臺灣各固有族群使用之自然語言及臺灣手語）
One of the better outcomes of this Act was the Ministry of Education’s inclusion of Taiwan Sign Language in the 12-year compulsory education curriculum as one of the ethnic languages offered in the elective language course. We expect it to provide the next generation with a better understanding of Taiwan Sign Language and Deaf culture.
Currently, however, TSL remains an endangered language. According to a recent report from the Ministry of the Interior of Taiwan, as of November 2020, there were 124,938 citizens documented as having “Hearing Mechanism Disability” (聽覺機能障礙者). However, it is not easy to estimate how many of them use TSL.
In 2020, the Ministry of Culture conducted a national language survey that included a written internet questionnaire for TSL. Among the 571 respondents, only 27.1% reported learning TSL as their first language at home. Worldwide, about 90%-95% of deaf children are born in hearing families who do not know any sign language. In Taiwan, most deaf children only begin to learn TSL when they enter schools for the hearing-impaired and interact with their peers.
Taiwan has offered free hearing screening for newborn infants from low-income families since 2010 and all families since 2012. According to the Health Promotion Administration of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, among the 171,645 infants screened for hearing in 2019 (98.4% of all infants), 775 were found to have a hearing impairment.
Very few of these infants are born into deaf families and do not have the opportunity to learn TSL as a first language. Nevertheless, they usually are not physically ready for a cochlear implant until around one year of age. Hence, in a year critical for cognitive development, they have virtually no language stimulation at all. Ideally, a bi-lingual bi-cultural community is best for deaf children—not to mention beneficial for hearing children. It is important to note here that “bi-lingual” refers to a sign language plus its ambient spoken language(s), and “bi-cultural” refers to Deaf culture and the culture of the normal hearing people.
Although it is not realistic to expect everybody in the community to learn a sign language, the need for early intervention of TSL for deaf children and well-designed sign language courses for parents with deaf children has been brought to the Taiwan government’s attention.
The Development of National Languages Act shows the Taiwan government’s determination on “Recognizing the multicultural nature of the nation, and to spur the transmission, revival, and development of national languages.” We are looking forward to seeing more plans and resources on TSL learning supported by the government – for deaf children and their families – and particularly the public.
Jane Tsay is a professor of linguistics and the director of the Taiwan Center for Sign Linguistics at National Chung Cheng University. She has done research on the phonology of Taiwan Southern Min and has been focusing more on the lexical comparison of Taiwan Sign Language and Japanese Sign Language in recent years.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Disabilities and Society.