minutia press.
Why not sign language?

I'm a big fan of "second" languages, and I like to think that after a few beers I could hold my own in a German conversation. When I was at U of Illinois, one requirement for graduation was competency in one language and the ability to read something simple in another. So with German unter my belt, I thought it would be good to learn some French. Actually, I decided on French because, after an informal poll, it was the language most women were studying. I figured that if I could speak their language, maybe they would go out with me.

So I took one semester of French, met one woman I dated briefly, and fulfilled my requirements for graduation. On visting a friend of mine in Paris, he asked me to try speaking some French with him. I warned him that I had only one semester, and so we had only covered the "present tense". He told me not to worry, that the French live in the present.

After years of not getting to speak much of German or French in the places I've dwelled, I've thought that it would have been good in retrospect to study sign language. My kids are currently in schools where a "second language" is a good thing, but none of the schools are offering sign language.

You might think, as I once did, that if everybody spoke sign language (so to speak, because you don't actually speak it at all), then we could all communicate in this common second language. How wrong I was.

My friends who sign informed that there is not one sign language, but there are in fact many dialects. In fact, there are evidently substantial differences between the sign language used in America and Great Britain---differences that cannot be shoved under the bonnet. And there are even more differences between sign language practiced in America and languages where English is not the spoken language.

How did this happen? Well it turned out that sign language was contaminated by people who can speak, so that some of the gestures look like the English word for the concept or are based on letters from an English word.

This is really a shame. We had a chance to de-Babel ourselves and we messed it up again. Well, as the French say: c'est fromage.


Esperanto is the answer.

Posted by: a reader at September 25, 2002 4:40 PM

Speaking of Esperanto, when I was in high school I worked at the public library shelving books (yes, I was a huge tool even then...) and there was a whole section of "Learning Esperanto" books in the "foreign language" part of the nonfiction section. And people actually checked these books out! Is there any country in the world where any significant (>= 10% even) of the population speaks Esperanto?

Posted by: Chris Hill Festival at September 26, 2002 12:07 PM

Esperanto is popular in Japan, China, Iran, Madagascar, Bulgaria, Brazil, Cuba, and the Holy Roman Empire. But I strongly doubt any of those countries have a 10% fluency rate.

Posted by: Aaron at September 26, 2002 5:37 PM

Are you sure, Aaron? When was the last time you were in Bulgaria?

Posted by: david at September 27, 2002 10:51 PM