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Why Have Hong Kong's Hearing Impaired Been Left Behind?

Sign language services are relatively good in such Asian countries as Japan, South Korea and Thailand. Why do they lag in Hong Kong? An exploration of the island's particular circumstance

A young person signs to a camera infront of a black background

A volunteer translates in sign language for a live stream of Hong Kong Pride during the coronavirus Covid-19 epidemic outbreak, November 14, 2020, Hong Kong, China.

Shi Wanping

HONG KONG — In May 2020, Chung Chi Keung, a deaf man suffering from depression, committed suicide 16 hours after being discharged from Kwai Chung Hospital in Hong Kong.

In July 2023, the Coroner's Court held an inquest, revealing that the suicide risk assessment form had not been properly filled out, and that Chung hadn't had access to a sign language interpreter while in hospital, and was left to communicate there with only pen and paper.

The incident raised concern among Hong Kong's community of people with hearing impairments around the hospital's failure to provide timely sign language assistance, which had clearly created miscommunication.

The general public knows very little about sign language, as a language and a service. If they think that there is sufficient support for the deaf in this society, and that it is only negligence and individual failures that led to this tragic incident, this glosses over the real problem of insufficient service, and also oversimplifies the complex linguistic reality of sign language.

Singapore news media The Initium invited Shi Wanping, a sign language researcher at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Associate Director of the Center for Sign Language and Deaf Studies, to help share a basic understanding of sign language and some of the related issues.

What kind of language is sign language?

The syntax of sign language does not necessarily follow the order of spoken language.

Sign language is a common communication tool used by the deaf, and is one of the natural languages of human beings. Over the past half century, scientific research has found that sign language has the same complex linguistic structure and full expressive capacity as spoken languages used by hearing people.

Although the Chinese term "sign language" uses the word "hand," deaf people use body movements, head movements, facial expressions and other aspects of their bodies, in addition to hand movements, to convey linguistic messages.

For example, when a deaf person asks a question, they need to look at the other person's eyes, tilt their head forward, open their eyes slightly and raise their eyebrows to let the other person know that the deaf person is asking a question, rather than making a general statement.

In linguistics, languages have varying sentence structures – Cantonese and English use SVO (subject-verb-object) as their sentence order. This can be shown using the example, “He has money," where “he” is the subject, “has” is the verb and “money” is the object. A language that uses SOV would instead say, “He money has."

Hong Kong sign language uses SVO, and in some cases, SOV. The author has met people who criticize that the order of Hong Kong sign language is different from Cantonese, creating confusion.

These criticisms are often based on narrow-minded opinions, from those who may think that sign language must follow the order of Cantonese to be considered grammatically correct. This is not true, because it is a language of its own.

Deaf people can't hear sound. They mainly rely on vision to understand and feel the things around them. In addition, their hands move in the space in front of them. Therefore, sign language will contain a large number of visual and three-dimensional space elements.

This expression is quite different from that of audio language, especially the expression of position and spatial relationships.

For example, if I wanted to say that there are two balls on the table, in English or Cantonese, I would either have to say that they are “on the table” or “above the table” to refer to their distance.

Hong Kong sign language uses two hands to represent the table and two balls, and then directly expresses the spatial relationship between the three in three-dimensional space, which is more straightforward and clearer than in spoken languages.

A webpage in Chinese shows a woman signing next to a video

A screenshot of the Honk Kong Society for the Deaf's sign language homepage,

Honk Kong Society for the Deaf

Language variation and evolution

In the past, many deaf schools in Hong Kong emphasized oral teaching and suppressed the use of sign language. In order to meet the needs of communication, deaf children can only create their own sign language according to the images they see.

Over time, deaf people who graduated from different schools have formed different sign language schools.

For all natural languages, there will be language variants. The so-called variant refers to the same meaning, with more than one expression. Variants can appear at different grammatical levels, such as pronunciation, vocabulary, semantics and even syntax levels.

Take English, as an example. Many people in Hong Kong think that English is a unified language with clear grammatical standards. In fact, even if people are in the same country, there will be many variants among native English speakers.

A linguist from Harvard University conducted a large-scale survey of English variants in the U.S. and made many interesting discoveries. For example, what is the last part of a piece of bread called in English? The survey interviewed more than 10,000 Americans, their answers included heel (59.15%), end (17.29%), crust (15.21%), butt (3.53%), nose (0.17%), shpitzel (0.05%), and others (2.63%), or no word for it (1.97%).

Respondents who used different words were scattered all throughout the United States. Therefore, the variants sometimes have little to do with geographic location.

As a natural language, Hong Kong sign language, of course, also has variants. At the level of vocabulary, variants can be roughly divided into two categories: the first is a completely independent variant, which means that there is no evolutionary connection between the variant and the variant, and the signing method of sign language is completely different.

For example, there are at least three ways to say "imprisonment" in Hong Kong sign language: an iron fence, with both hands clasped, or describing the appearance of the iron fence in the prison or a locked hands gesture.

All three ways of signing are images that naturally come to their minds when they think of "imprisonment."

The emergence of independent variants is often closely related to the education policy for deaf children, and whether sign language is sufficiently available in society.

This evolution is called the "assimilation phenomenon" in linguistics.

The second type of variant evolved from existing words. For example, the original sign for "camera" is to hold the camera with both hands and press the button with one’s right index finger. There are some deaf people who do the sign with both fingers ‘pressing the buttons,’ forming another new variant. This evolution is called the "assimilation phenomenon" in linguistics.

The assimilation phenomenon of Hong Kong sign language can affect different aspects such as movement, position, hand shape, palm direction, etc., and evolve into different variants.

Another common evolution is "deletion." For example, the "cow" in Hong Kong sign language can be two-handed, signed by showing horns on the head with both index fingers, or one of the hands can be 'deleted,' turning the sign into a one-handed one.

Similarly, deletion is also very common in spoken languages. Many English speakers will delete the sound of the “d” when saying 'handbag'. The Cantonese pronunciation of "handbag" is “hambaanglaang,” but what is more often heard is “hamblaang' — that is, the vowel of the middle syllable is deleted.

Three numbered panels show a woman preforming signs

There are three ways of signing the word "imprisonment" in Hong Kong sign language.


Standardization of sign language

Generally speaking, the evolution of these languages is advancing in the direction of making communication more convenient, which is the general trend of the natural evolution of human language.

So is it necessary for us to unify sign language? First, language standardization is a difficult thing to do. In practice, which variant should we choose as the standard? How should we encourage deaf people to give up their language habits over the years and only follow the standard style?

Standardizing sign language in a short period of time would be timely and costly, and the effectiveness is doubtful – it may also provoke unnecessary contradictions in the deaf community (such as arguing about whose sign language is the most correct and worth preserving).

In addition, if you only train sign language interpreters with the newly established standards, how will translators then communicate when they meet deaf people who do not understand standard sign language in the future?

At present, sign language interpreters have to first understand the language habits of deaf people, and appropriately cooperate with the needs of the other party.

When engaging in public-oriented translation work, they will choose a more general style of signing. In fact, the lexical variants of Hong Kong sign language are not as significant as people think. The commonly used words have stable and common methods, and also cover different meanings, such as "Hong Kong," "Mainland China," "Government," "Economy," "Education," "Housing," "Law," "Transportation," “water," “eat," “yes," “no," and so on.

The more commonly used words, the fewer variants there will be.

Language is a communication tool based on convention. The more commonly used words, the fewer variants there will be. Therefore, as long as the visibility and circulation of sign language are improved, such as increasing the number of sign language-related programs and expanding the level of sign language use in society, these variants can fade away.

The common sign language in Nanjing and Shanghai, for example, coupled with the sign language developed by deaf schools in Hong Kong, has slowly integrated into the deaf community in Hong Kong to form today's Hong Kong sign language.

Sign language is a visual space language naturally developed by deaf people, but it requires some prerequisites to create an environment suitable for the birth of sign language.

Generally speaking, when a considerable number of deaf people have the opportunity to meet frequently, they can naturally develop sign language. If these individual deaf people are scattered, most can only develop simple gestures (called “home signs” in academia) to communicate with their hearing relatives and friends.

The history of sign language in Hong Kong and across Asia

So, under what circumstances will there be "a considerable number of deaf people who have the opportunity to meet frequently"?

In the 1940s and 1950s, a large number of people emigrated to Hong Kong, including deaf people who had received education. Among them was a deaf couple from Shanghai. After coming to Hong Kong, they established the first deaf school that used sign language teaching, called the Overseas Chinese Deaf-Mute School, and introduced sign language spoken in Nanjing and Shanghai.

At that time, there was already a deaf school in Hong Kong that emphasized oral teaching, called Zhen Duo School.

As mentioned above, even if there is no sign language teaching in the school, deaf children will create their own sign language, so Zhen Duo's students gradually developed their own sign language system.

In addition to these two deaf schools, several deaf schools using spoken or sign language were established later.

Similarities between different schools

The common sign language in Nanjing and Shanghai, coupled with the sign language developed by local deaf schools in Hong Kong, has slowly gathered and integrated into the deaf community in Hong Kong to form today's Hong Kong sign language. Therefore, Hong Kong sign language has many similarities to the ones in southern China.

One may wonder, is sign language in Macao and Taiwan related to Chinese sign language?

When Macao first set up a special school for deaf children, it hired teachers who knew Hong Kong sign language to teach. Therefore, now the older generation of deaf people sign a language similar to Hong Kong sign language.

Later, more and more mainland Chinese people moved to Macao and also introduced their sign language.

As for Taiwan, the earliest deaf school was established during the Japanese rule. The teaching language there is Japanese sign language. It can be said that today's Taiwanese sign language evolved from Japanese sign language.

Sign language interpreter signs to camera infront of a green background

Sign language interpreter and student signs for a video showcasing COVID-19 prevention and control tips for hearing-impaired people. Nanjing, China, May 14, 2022.


A shortage of interpretation and translation services

According to statistics from the Hong Kong government in 2020, there are about 246,200 people with hearing difficulties in Hong Kong. But the Hong Kong List of Sign Language Translators counts only about 50 people.

So far, there is no sign language interpreter assessment and licensing system in Hong Kong.

Compared with many other regions in Asia, Hong Kong is relatively behind in this regard. At present, the Hong Kong Rehabilitation Association, Hong Kong Council of Social Service and the Rehabilitation Advisory Committee have jointly established an online "List of Hong Kong Sign Language Interpreters," which is voluntary registration and lists the qualifications, experience and contacts of translators.

The most important thing for deaf people is getting translation services in medical and educational cases.

Before applying for registration, the translator needs to submit a certificate of at least 200 hours of sign language translation work in the past two years signed by an institution. The list will be updated regularly.

The 50 people on the list do not include the number of people who actually can interpret and translate, but do not have signed certificates, or those who do not want their personal information to be publicly accessible.

In addition, the Hong Kong court has an internal list of sign language interpreters, with fewer than 20 people on it.

The most important thing for deaf people currently is getting translation services in medical and educational cases.

If a deaf person needs to go to the hospital, to a doctor, the emergency room or any medical situation, they have the right to have a translator to help them communicate. While some deaf people can communicate through writing on paper or on a phone, many cannot, and many do not feel comfortable enough expressing themselves this way.

Some also have friends or family who can help, but this is not an option for everyone. This is why more translators are required in the country.

Education system is also lacking

As for education, there are no government regulations that require universities to provide sign language interpretation for deaf students in need.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of regulations, many colleges and universities refuse to provide translation services on the grounds that resources need to be fairly distributed. Some deaf students have to ask family members for help with interpretation in class.

Other deaf students find that they can't cope with their studies without translation support and drop out of school.

Over the years, I have known many highly educated and proficient sign language interpreters (such as the children of deaf parents) who are unwilling to be full-time sign language interpreters, believing that the income is too low and unstable, and that there is a low change of promotion.

For many years, deaf people in Hong Kong have been complaining about the lack of translation services and the quality of translators.This is due to a lack of government resources.

Looking at Asia, the regions and countries where sign language translation services are relatively good include Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand. These governments have taken the initiative to invest resources, set up positions as sign language interpreters, improve their professional status, attract more people into the industry, and further improve their quality.

Learning sign language is as difficult as learning any other language. And becoming a translator takes many years of hard work.

If the public continues to regard sign language translation as a kind of volunteer service, and do not give sign language interpreters the professional status and remuneration they deserve, I'm afraid that sign language translation in Hong Kong will remain at a standstill.

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