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Basic Guide for Communication in Catalan Sign Language

2. Introduction to Catalan sign language

In this unit we will first study sign languages and the concept of signs, the parts forming them and how they are expressed. Following this we will learn fingerspelling, or dactylology, a useful tool for those beginning to learn how to communicate with deaf people.

2.1. What is Sign Language?

Sign language is the result of a biological and cultural interaction in humans, a creative adaptation to a sensorial limitation which transforms the resources available and a human’s potential to communicate through a visual modality.

As aforementioned, studies focusing on sign languages date back to the 1960s, specifically in the year 1960, when American linguist William C. Stockoe published Sign Language Structure, the first study to delve into the analysis of sign languages using modern linguistic methods. The publication of this work represented a revolution in how sign languages were conceived until that moment, which were believed to be based on a simplified descriptive version of the rules of spoken languages. Following his first study, Stockoe complemented it five years later with the publication of A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles, At the same time, Ursula Bellugui and Edward S. Klima presented their research on The Signs of Language which detailed the arbitrary and iconic aspects of signing and their internal structure. Thanks to this study, linguists began to show interest in further researching sign languages. The first steps were taken in United States and focused on American Sign Language, but this interest spread around the world at the beginning of the 1980s.

Sign language structures are organised at the same levels as spoken languages, even though the channel of transmission is different. Their efficacy as a development tool has been more than proven, which signifies that there is a normal cognitive development which allows deaf people to experience social and affective/emotional relations fully. Studies carried out in the past 50 years have given way to the analysis of phonological, morphological, syntax and discursive dimensions of sign languages in the same way as spoken languages are analysed. However, new sign languages are constantly being added and much is yet to be done in this field.

In terms of phonology, it must be highlighted that these languages contain meaningless sublexical units which must be combined to form meaningful semantic units. This demonstrates that signs are not indivisible units as previously thought. As happens with morphemes in spoken languages, they can be divided into smaller units comparable to phonemes. The morphosyntactic dimension in relation to a specific use of space and simultaneity when signing is also a common trait in all sign languages, regardless of their origin.

Nevertheless, these common characteristics found in the structure of almost all sign languages must not lead us to believe that there is a universal sign language. The Deaf Community of each country is influenced by historical, political, economic, social and cultural factors which determine the evolution of their language and make it unique. Even within the same country one can find different sign languages, as happens in Belgium, with the Flemish sign language in the Flanders region and the French sign language of Belgium in Wallonia. At the same time the French Sign Language of Belgium (LSFB) is not at all similar to the French Sign Language (LSF) used in France. In Spain there are the Spanish (LSE) and Catalan (LSC) sign languages. However, the situation is quite different when compared to Belgium. The region using LSC does not correspond to the region where oral Catalan is spoken, and is only used in Catalonia, Aragon (La Franja), and Menorca. It is used however by almost 100% of deaf people. In contrast, LSE is used in all other regions of Spain with some geographical variations. Therefore, although Valencia, the Basque Country, and Galicia all have co-official languages different from Spanish, the sign language used in those regions is LSE. This simply shows that we cannot establish a direct relation between the spoken language and the sign language of a land because the two may have clearly different origins and natures. Another example is the case of British (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL), two sign languages with little similarity, while speakers of both areas can understand each other using English as the common spoken language.

LSC is a cultural and linguistic heritage of Catalonia and of other regions where it is used and must receive the same respect and support given to the other languages of the land. LSC as its own proper language began taking shape some 200 years ago. LSE underwent the same transformation into a proper language during the same period of time and each language conserved its own linguistic traits. Differences found in LSC are due to the education given to deaf children in residential schools. This gave way some two centuries ago to the evolution of the language under the influence of an isolated culture. Today there are 25,000 users of Catalan Sign Language, 6,000 of whom are deaf or deaf-blind and the remaining 19,000 hearing.

Through the deaf association movement, deaf people have fought bravely throughout history for the recognition of their language and for the standardisation of learning, teaching, use and research the language deserves. It was not until 19 June 2007 that the Labour and Social Affairs Committee of the Spanish Congress of Deputies passed the bill giving explicit support to all sign languages existing in Spain, ratified in October of the same year by the Spanish Senate, thereby officially recognising the languages and regulating the support given in all communications with the deaf, deaf-blind and hard-of-hearing (Law 27/2007 of 23 October, BOE num. 255-18476). More recently, on 26 May 2010, the Catalan Parliament unanimously passed the Law on Catalan Sign Language, awarding the language "the dignity it deserves with this institutional recognition". The new law is in response to Article 50.6 of the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, which states that education, protection and use of Catalan sign language, as well as conditions of equality for deaf people choosing to use the language, will be guaranteed. The law ultimately regulates the rights to use, learn, teach, research and interpret the language. The organisations responsible for research into sign language are the Institute for Catalan Studies (IEC) and public universities. Local administration is in charge of disseminating information and promoting the learning of the language among its citizens and civil servants. The law recognises IEC as the language regulations authority and sets down the foundations for the creation of a Board of Trustees as an assessment, consultation and participative organisation on aspects related to Catalan Sign Language.

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