Natural Sign Language Versus Artificial Signed Versions of Spoken Language

In several countries, signed versions of the native spoken language have been created by educators. Unlike natural sign languages, they are typically signed simultaneously with the spoken language as a form of sign-supported speech. In the United States there are several versions of manually coded English (MCE). The most widely used of these are Signed English, Signed Exact English, and Seeing Essential English. These all use lexical signs from ASL and English word order, but they vary in the degree to which created signs encode all of the function words or derivational and inflectional morphology of English.

The educational value of these MCE systems over ASL and oral or written English is hotly disputed. They have two primary drawbacks. First, because signs take longer to produce than words, signing a sentence in a linear sequence following that of English takes much longer than speaking the same sentence in English. The simultaneous speaker-signer either has to slow down her speech to an unnatural extent or has to leave out aspects of the signed portion of the message. Thus, deaf children receive either an incomplete and ungrammatical language input or a simplified one, so that their exposure to complex English syntax is artificially reduced.

Second, several universal features of natural sign languages that have evolved to allow effective and rapid communication of meaning in a visual-spatial mode are not incorporated into MCE systems. These features include the use of space as a grammatical and semantic device, simultaneous morphology, and nonmanual linguistic markers. Indeed, in several respects MCE systems directly violate these universal principles and so can be very confusing for deaf children who have been exposed to ASL (Johnson, Liddell, and Erting, 1989). Deaf children may then naturalize MCE so that it more closely conforms to ASL's use of space and simultaneity (Sup-pala, 1991).

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