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Code-switching and sign language

Cielo stellato, da Van Gogh, acrilico 5 anni e mezzo.

A special form of bilingualism: Code switching and sign language

I recently discovered a form of what scholars consider bilingualism that struck me for its peculiarity and therefore I want to describe it. There are people who know and use the language of signs in their everyday life. The studies I've read have been conducted in America and analyze English speaking, hearing or  hard of hearing people who use the American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate for example with deaf family members. These people are viewed as bilingual to the extent that the ASL is considered a separate language due to its distinct grammar from the English one. (Bimodal bilingualism in Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 11 (1), 2008, 43-61 C 2008 Cambridge University Press).


The study intended to foster communication between native English speakers who know ASL, noting the tendency of speakers to alternate oral expression with gestures, in some cases, and to use sign language at the same time to highlight some of the concepts expressed in speech, in other. In the first case we assist to an alternation of languages, reflecting the attitude typically found in bilinguals to borrow words or expressions from the language that you are not using at the time, the so-called code-switching.

"he was looking at her...."



Example of code-switching in which the speaker interrupts the conversation to use the gesture that, in this case, replaces the voice.

In the case of simultaneous use of gestures and words, we face a phenomenon called code-blending, or use of both languages simultaneously. That 's what the experts call bimodal bilingualism, which is physically impossible to find in bilinguals who can not physically produce information in two different languages simultaneously. But with the help of the hands, it is possible to reproduce this particular phenomenon that leads the speaker to use "two languages" simultaneously.

"He was looking at her...."

Example of code-blending: in this case word and gestures, semantically equivalent, coexist.

The study shows that the simultaneous use of English and ASL generally serves as a support, since terms tend to be semantically equivalent (with the same meaning). Furthermore, it would be quite surprising to know that a human being is capable of saying one thing and express another simultaneously with the gestures! Now, these are cases that occur in certain groups of people and can not be generalized. However, it makes me think of how many times it happened to me personally, not having grown up bilingual, but now, in adulthood, speaking several languages, to talk in one language and to think afterwards that I had been expressing myself in another, as if my brain drew support from the linguistic baggage at its disposal.

If I could, I would have spoken those two languages simoultaneously, but of course these super powers have not yet been attributed to me. In fact, you will confirm it too, it often happens to have a conversation in a language "A" and then to remember to have done in a language "B" and only after reflection we realize that it was not possible to have used the language B since our interlocutor does not know language B. For us Italians, however, code-blending is not exactly new. We are known worldwide for our ability to express ourselves with gestures, and although our gesture code system can not be regarded as a language, however, it allows us to make use of it in order to give more emphasis to our conversation.

In conclusion, these are fascinating phenomena of the functioning of our brain that show how much potential we have and who knows, maybe one day we will find a way to produce information in two different languages simultaneously! Or maybe not, maybe just one at a time it's enough, as we have already now to work so hard to learn languages and to teach them to our children ...!


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