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Chinese Sign Language:

Elizabeth T. Yeh

 Sign languages of the world are more similar than written/spoken languages

The basis of any language is to communicate with one another (mostly of the same inclination), be common factor a culture, a nation, or even a perceived handicap.

Consider the extreme cases of the written languages of English (American) and Chinese. The English language is one that is based on phonetics derived from an ordered set of alphabet that can be put together to “spell” and to enunciate into words, which are the meaningful quantities of communication.

The Chinese written language is constructed of pictorial characters that individually and directly have relevant meanings. The written language has been unified, simplified and altered over the centuries, but the spoken language depends completely on the enunciation that varies from region to region of the specific pictures. Consequently, the “dialects” of China are almost foreign to other regions where people speak a different dialect, until one writes the word (picture) down. That is the lineage upon which for the many centuries the Chinese culture has existed.

What about sign language in Chinese as compared to the American Sign Language (ASL)? Even though both sign languages have established the formal connection to written language by defining a set of symbols for the fundamental units, the alphabet in English and the alphabetized pronunciation of Chinese word sounds, most of the sign language needed for daily communication are by pictures and by actions, coupled by facial expressions. These features of the sign language have much more commonality than their respective differences.

We have just been learning the ASL during this month. The thing that struck me as being of most interesting is the infrequent use of the alphabet. We are taught how to sign words by using the alphabet, but rarely during the entire course of 25 lessons and quizzes are words spelled out. Most of the words are signed by actions and facial expressions that can be related to our daily encounters, e.g., driving a car or a truck, asking about who, why, where and when. Even the signings that pertain to nouns have certain association to perceived values and qualities (e.g., father, mother, boy, girl) that transcend the boundaries of the hearing and the deaf.

As such, sign language in Chinese exhibits much similarity to ASL. Modern Chinese Sign Language developed mostly in the late 1950’s, even though the first use in a deaf school in China was back in 1887, when it was created by an American missionary, C.R. Mills and his wife. At present Chinese sign language (CSL) exists with variations on the mainland China (Shanghai being most influential), in Taiwan (Chinese National Association of the Deaf, R.O.C.), and in Hong Kong ((HKSL). The goals for establishing sign languages are universal: enhance the quality of life of the hearing disadvantaged by 1) eliminating the obstruction between the deaf and the hearing people, assisting the government in promulgating “the Law for the Protection of the Handicapped”, 2) reviewing and promoting the education of sign language and assisting the deaf in removing their obstacles to communicate with people, and 3) improving the deaf school, employment, medical care and supporting and seeking for a living space free of obstruction.

Because Chinese is already a pictorial language, the connection between the written language and that of the CSL becomes tighter than even in ASL. For example, two index fingers pointing to each other, with the right index slightly higher than the left forming an inverted “v”, means person. This is because CSL has just signed the exact written Chinese character for person! Variations of motion by one finger relative to the other signify people, population and citizens, all variants of the person.

In addition to the pictorial similarity, CSL and ASL resort to the use of constraints and helpful gestures in similar manner. We consider two examples: First of all, CSL (or HKSL), just like ASL, assumes verb agreement. Number agreement implies the relation between the verbs and their arguments in terms of number; in case of quantification, quantifiers always encode the additional meaning to the verbs.

Next, we look into the situation of blinks and its association to intonational phrases in HKSL. Sze finds that blinks occurring towards the end if or after a sign possibly co-occur with syntactic boundaries of constituents do correspond to an intonational phrase in the spoken language. Evidence exists that blinks often occur with head turns and gaze changes, suggesting the need to take these two factors into account in order not to over-estimate the linguistic role of blinks in signing. Similar facial expressions exist for ASL.

In summary, I suggest that it may be easier for the Chinese to become knowledgeable in CSL than for an American to learn ASL. This could be because a Chinese person already knows a language based on pictorial characters. Consequently, the translation to the equally pictorial CSL is easier than what an American has to deal with: translating the alphabetized words into pictures and relating those to the sign language.


 Chen, YQ, et al., CSLDS: Chinese Sign Language Dialog System, Proc. IEEE Intern. Workshop on Analysis and Modeling of Faces and Gestures (AMFG’03),,

Chinese Sign Language: A language of China, ISO 639-2: sgn,

CSL: Chinese Sign Language.

Yang, JH & Fisher, SD, Expressing negation in Chinese Sign Language, Sign Language and Linguistics, vol.5, pp. 167-202, 2002.

Lam, WS, Reconsidering Number Agreement in Hong Kong Sign Language.

Sze, F, Blinks and Intonational Phrases in Hong Kong Sign Language.