Monday, January 1, 2007

Japanese Sign Language is Visual Anthropology, too...

A little late, but here's a photo from the JSL Study Group

Our End of Year Party had a nice turnout. In addition to our usual mix of international and domestic students, several Deaf people from Osaka and Kyoto participated.

We study Osaka-ben Japanese Sign Language... in English!

This is the advertisement/theme/motto of the Kansai Gaidai University Japanese Sign Language Study Group, founded with cooperation from the Center for International Education during the spring semester of 2005. Our group has finished its fourth semester and its membership has included both international students and regular Gaidaisei. Faculty and University staff members have also participated. This study group, which meets every Wednesday evening during spring and fall semesters from 6:00 to 7:00 PM in room 3412 in the CIE building, is free of charge and open to all in our University community.

The group is intended to be a fun and relaxing atmosphere to study Japanese Sign Language (JSL) and deaf culture. I consider myself to be a coordinator and facilitator rather than a sign language sensei. While I have been researching deaf culture and sign languages for almost 10 years, I am not a native speaker/signer of JSL, nor am I deaf. My intention with this group is to explore JSL and communication from a number of different perspectives and study methods. For me, this group is an extension of my research; I am able to view JSL in a new light through the diverse learning experiences of the students. For example, how can foreign students understand a form of body communication deeply rooted in Japanese culture? How can all of our different experiences and perspectives of language study and cross-cultural living mutually benefit all of us in our exploration of JSL?

Let me provide a brief history of the study group. In the spring semester of 2004 I began teaching a course here at Kansai Gaidai University called “The Body and Communication in Japan.” This course investigates the various ways that Japanese people use their bodies to communicate, supplementing and/or replacing speech. The class covers such topics as Japanese gestures, facial expressions and emotions, Buddhist mudra (sacred hand shapes), dance movements of noh and kabuki, jan-ken, body image and ways in which the body is adorned. JSL is also examined as an example of how Japanese deaf people use their body to communicate. Several international students commented that they wanted more opportunity to study and use JSL. With this idea in mind, we founded the JSL Study Group. Several Japanese students joined the group as well. Turnout varies from week to week with anywhere from 10 to 40 students.

The group members are diverse as are their interests in learning JSL. Some come to the group because of a ge
neral interest in language and communication. Others have briefly studied sign language in their own countries. Some members have noted that this is the first opportunity they have had to learn sign language as their own universities might not offer sign language courses. Some members have sought jobs as flight attendants and view JSL as another language qualification to help them in their job search. Other members have become interested in JSL after seeing it used on popular TV dramas (most recently Orange Days).

Every week we introduce new vocabulary and grammar. Members decide what sort of topics they wish to learn about. We have covered themes such as self-introductions, family, pets, food, weather, common verbs in past, present and future tense and hobbies. The primary study method is to “learn by doing.” After vocabulary and grammar are introduced, we do various fun exercises, skits, and games to practice. For the last two semesters we have been fortunate to have a Deaf woman from Osaka join us every week. Interestingly enough, this Deaf woman has studied both American Sign Language and English (and thus it is sometime difficult to make her stick to JSL during our meetings). Other Deaf people from Kyoto and Osaka have joined us on occasion. Students have been surprised about the genki nature of the Deaf people and the positive image they projected, as opposed to the common stereotype of the poor, depressed handicapped person. We have also visited a local sign language circle in Hirakata and held a bonenkai (“end of year” party) to have more opportunities to interact in JSL. I have found the members of our study group to be very motivated and creative, however some have lamented at the difficulty in learning JSL. JSL is a separate language from spoken Japanese; it has its own unique vocabulary, grammar, and word order. Sign languages, like spoken languages, take a lot of time and energy to learn.

There is a commo
n, but false, notion that sign language is universal. Every culture has its own spoken language(s) and its own sign language(s). That means JSL is different from American Sign Language and Swedish Sign Language, for example. In addition, a common spoken language does not indicate that there is a common sign language. America, the United Kingdom and Australia all speak English, but their sign languages are all different. Different cultures view and move the body differently (gestures are not universal), thus there are differing sign languages. I have studied American Sign Language and Balinese Sign Language in addition to JSL. To show the differences in sign language and the cultural logic behind body movement, I often show how basic kinship signs are expressed in these three languages. “Mother, “father” and “sister” are all expressed differently among deaf people in America, Bali and Japan, respectively. The climax of this exercise is when I show an extended middle finger as meaning “brother” in JSL. A raised middle finger means “older brother.” Of course in America, such a gesture has an obscene meaning.

Dialects can be found in sign language, too. For example in Japan, sign language is slightly different in Hokkaido, Tokyo, Osaka and Kyushu. I have noted some differences between the sign language
used in Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. There are also gender and age differences in sign language use. Men and women sign differently, as do older and younger people. JSL uses kanji and has a form of keigo. The same common features of spoken languages can be found in sign languages. All of these things make learning JSL very challenging, but very interesting as well.

The greatest challenge of the group is the ever-changing membership. International students are at Kansai Gaidai for only one semester or one year. Gaidaisei leave to study abroad. There is not much overlap in membership from semester to semester. And i
t is difficult to learn and master a new language in a semester or a year. A more realistic goal of our study group is to provide a foundation for sign language study and a forum for understanding the nature of Deaf culture. Gaidaisei can use the group to help in their understanding of “language” and perhaps start to study JSL again when they return from abroad. International students might be encouraged to study the sign language of their own country when they return home. All can share their experiences with deaf culture and help reduce prejudice, discrimination and ethnocentrism. My early hope was to spread the understanding of sign language and Deaf culture in a local setting, but with the vast worldwide networks that Kansai Gaidai has established, our impact can be global.

(This posting is an updated version of an article that appeared in the Kansai Gaidai News, November, 2005.)