Official Languages for this Symposium : Hebrew and Sign

An observer who came to this symposium early noticed a group of people standing in the middle of the hall talking in groups or in pairs. Missing, however, was the usual load hum of noise emanating from people engaged in animated conversation. These people, however, were clearly conversing with one another.

The confusion evaporated when on a closer look, one noticed their hands. It was not the usual waving or pointing gestures punctuating certain people’s talk. There was no question that the interlocutors were seeing one another’s “voices.

Seeing Voices” was, in fact, the name of a unique symposium that took place at the University during the week of Hanukah, in the second week of December. It was perhaps the first time that a major academic event in Israel was conducted in simultaneous translation without the need for earphones. The official symposium languages were Hebrew and Israeli Sign Language.

Israeli Sign Language, according to Dr. Wendy Sandler, a linguist who was responsible for organizing the symposium, is a real language that can express any idea--concrete, abstract, poetic. One cannot say that spoken Hebrew is richer than Israeli Sign language or vice versa,” she told her audience. (See separate story on Sandler.)
The lecturer exposed and dispelled myths about sign languages, in two of which she is conversant herself: American Sign Language and Israel Sign Language. Contrary to common belief, Israeli Sign language is not vocabulary poor, she stated. In some cases, it even has different signs to convey different concepts for which there is but one word in Hebrew. For example, Israel Sign Language has separate “words” for a court judge and for a judge of a sporting event, for which there is but one word in Hebrew. She also gave examples of words in Israeli Sign Language for which no word exists in Hebrew. This lack of one-to-one correspondence of vocabulary items between languages is characteristic of all languages, spoken or signed, and demonstrates the difficulties in translating.

It is a myth, the linguist continued, that Israeli Sign Language cannot express abstract concepts. She “spoke” in signs the words for “freedom,” “soul,” and the question, “How do you feel?” (the last in two forms, one for health and one for emotion). Still another myth is that Israeli Sign Language has no grammatical structure (“the perfect tense found in English is missing in Hebrew, but there is something comparable in Israeli Sign Language”). Some language forms and constructions are accepted as correct by signers, and others are not, she said, citing this as further strong proof that Israeli Sign Language has a grammar.

Teachers of the deaf, social workers, deaf community leaders, parents of deaf children, members of the Association of the Deaf, and the merely interested filled the hall to overflowing for this symposium. The hearing audience learned how to applaud in sign: waving one’s hands overhead, a visual signal of commendation that deaf people can appreciate.

Sandler wants Israeli Sign Language to be better described and analyzed than it has been up to now, and for it to play a stronger role in Israeli schools. The linguist’s research team are a doctoral student, Irit Meir, and three deaf sign language consultants: Meir Etedgi, an architecture student at the Technion; Orna Levy, a deaf education student at Tel-Aviv University, as well as student teacher and sign-language teacher; and Doron Levy, an accountant and sign-language teacher. All three come from deaf families and learned Israeli Sign Language as a native language from their parents.

Orna told the audience that the problem is not the lack of hearing but difficulties in communication. To be deaf among hearing people, in her description, was like being in a foreign country, where one did not feel at home. For the deaf, she commented, this was a constant state.
Also participating in the seminar was Tali Etedgi, who relataed her experiences as a deaf child of hearing parents. Tali, who is a chemical engineer, told how she had preferred to attend a deaf school rather than a hearing school as a child because she felt that she could be herself among her deaf friends.
Orna also recounted some of her experiences and those of others during the Gulf War, when people had to rush to sealed rooms upon the announcement of a Scud attack. Some missiles went over the Haifa area, as well. Often, she did not know what had happened until she read about it in the newspaper the next day.

Some deaf persons, she said, wore their gas masks for as long as six hours at a stretch because they did not know when the all- clear siren was being sounded. Being dependent on viewing aids led to mistakes, some of them humorous only in retrospect. In one case, a video recorder had been left on during an attack; not long after the people had returned from their sealed room following the all-clear and had been watching a movie, they were suddenly confronted with the printed announcement on TV of an attack. Again they rushed to the sealed room, only to learn later on that this “second attack” was actually a video-recording of the original announcement.

Meir Etedgi recounted experiences that were often humorous and always revealing. He did army service, and each side had to adjust to each other. Then at the Technion, a major change in his career as a student occurred when he began having his classes simultaneously interpreted into sign language. Interpreting made it possible for him to understand classroom proceedings and to participate, as well. As a result, he said, both the other students and his teachers began to relate to him and to include him in their discussions. Unfortunately, he commented sadly, there is not enough public money available for full interpreting services for deaf university students.

Experiences like these undoubtedly play their part in Sandler’s desire to share both her research results and what she herself learns from working together with deaf people as a team. For her deaf colleagues, the research and the awareness generated by it can only add to the feeling that they are, as Doron Levy put it in another context, “first a person, then a deaf person.

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