What is sign language and what does it mean to you, to me, to the community?

Well, sign language is a visual-manual language with its own grammar and linguistic structure that are different from those of spoken languages. It is not a visual representation of spoken language and does not relate grammatically to any spoken language. Rather, it is a language natural to me as a deaf person, to the Deaf community and is important to our self-identity. Miming or gestures alone are not considered as sign language, although they are often incorporated just as spoken languages do.

I was diagnosed with bilateral severe-profound deafness at the tender age of 1. I was first exposed to, ironically not sign language, but spoken English. I had speech therapy in primary school which placed much emphasis on speech reading, but I learnt it in a quite physical way; I spent a lot of time putting my hands on the speech therapist’s throat to feel the vibrations when she spoke. Hence I grew up in a silent world that ironically never stopped talking.

My exposure to sign language was only several years later (after enrolment in primary school), which focused on sign language as the main mode of communication before its transition to oral approach. At that time, there were many schoolmates who were all signing away and easily. The ‘silent’ visual language fascinated me greatly, when I realised that there was an easier way of communication in my ‘noisy’ world.

Benefits of Sign Language

What I learnt was actually a mixture of American Sign Language (ASL), Signing Exact English (SEE) and local signs. I don’t profess to be fluent in sign language, but there are many situations where I find sign language useful in communication.

  • Whenever I need to gossip or rant, I can sign without the fear of getting eavesdropped on or caught. Of course, this doesn’t apply when I am talking about a deaf person; the secret is no longer secret!
  • When my friend is stuck on the opposite road with the Red Traffic Man appearing, it is easier to sign from afar to communicate, and trust me when I say it is much faster than a text.
  • When I am sick, with a bad cough, I can simply sign without needing to aggravate my poor hoarse voice further.
  • When I am in a noisy place with lots of background noise such as in the hawker centre, beside a busy road, just.kill.me. I can’t hear my friends clearly (and even my voice) despite hearing aids (because these amplify all sounds in a somewhat degraded version with quite a lot of fidelity loss). Instead of killing my brain cells trying (uselessly) to strain to hear and speech-read which is mentally draining at times, using sign language is just so much easier!

Most importantly, sign language actually provides a medium of communication to me especially during those times I may not be able to express myself well verbally, in a clearer and easier way in this very audio-centric world that we live in. Needless to say, I happily (and easily) picked up sign language and found a whole new world I never knew that existed.

How Sign Language generally works

I understand SEE as a manually coded English system that is based on signs drawn from ASL and includes articles, prepositions, pronouns, affixes, tenses, and finger-spelled words to visually represent the English language. Simply put, SEE strives to be an exact representation of English language with vocabs and grammar. Hence SEE is not considered a language itself like ASL (which is a real language with its own unique grammar system); it is simply an invented system for English language.

On the other hand, while Singapore does not have a national sign language, our Deaf community now recognises Singapore Sign Language (SgSL) as our native sign language. SgSL is mainly influenced by Shanghainese Sign Language, ASL, SEE and locally developed signs, and has developed since the first school for the Deaf was set up in 1954.

Many people are under the misconception that sign language is a universal language. It is not. Just like each country has its native spoken language to them (e.g. French, Brazilian), each Deaf community around the world has its own sign language that is unique to them with its own lexicon and grammar. There are some countries that primarily speak English such as USA and UK, but their sign languages are completely different i.e. ASL vs British Sign Language (BSL). 


American Christine Sun Kim, who is a sound artist and Deaf, shared in her TED talk on how she discovered many similarities between ASL and music. Christine had made an important point on ASL with different grammatical parameters. Because of different parameters, “to look at” gave different interpretations - this, I totally agree. SgSL has 5 main parameters (similar to speech sounds in spoken language): handshape, orientation, location, movement, and non-manual markers (i.e. features that are beyond the hand such as facial expressions, mouthing, head/body movement). Hence, when a word/phrase is signed but with one or more parameters changed, the meaning is now altered, sometimes to a comedic hilarious effect and where misunderstandings can ensue.

I also agree with Christine on ASL vs social currency. Just because SgSL has no sound to it, it automatically holds no social currency. However, sound does not have to be solely experienced through auditory means. What defines social currency, I or even who, can ask? I echo Christine’s words that you do not really need to be D/deaf to learn SgSL, nor do you have to be hearing to learn sounds. Open your ears, open your eyes, take part in our Deaf culture and experience our language.

A Tip on Learning Sign Language

Last but not least, I have only 1 tip to advise on how to improve signing and learning SgSL – do socialise with D/deaf people more! After all, SgSL is the native language of the Deaf community and there is no better way to practise with.

If you have read this far – oh great! – and your spark is now ignited (by me) on SgSL and the Deaf culture, SADeaf does offer SgSL courses including for beginners. You can also check out this informative resource: https://www.sgslsignbank.org.sg/signs for commonly-used sign words .

SgSL, as I’ve come to realise, may be a ‘silent’ language but beyond its visual beauty (to you), it has become my ‘voice’ that can’t be expressed purely with spoken language.  

About the Author

Ong Shi Yi, who identifies as deaf, has bilateral severe-profound hearing loss. She does not profess to be eloquent in speech or fluent in sign language. However, having been exposed to oral and sign language in her early years, she can code-switch easily as and when, thus finding her ‘voice’ as she navigates this audio-centric world. She firmly believes that D/deaf people do not have a choice when it comes to living with deafness but they have a choice to live their lives to the fullest.