The Difference Between Languages and Communication Codes

ASL Program
November 22, 2021

“Roger that, over”.... “Drop anchor, starboard to port”....

In the time before phones and the internet, people communicated in a wide range of ways. Nautical flags sent messages from ship to ship and Morse code translated information miles away through underground wires.

“Avehay away icenay ayday”

Codes that rearrange letters or play with acronyms, such as NATO Phonetic alphabet and pig latin, have been used for a long time  to conceal notes passed between school children, spies and their masters, separated lovers, and commands during wartime. Are these communication codes considered languages? While they can bring a successful exchange of information, can they be used to hold a conversation or educate a child?

For a language to be classified as such, it needs to have identifiable phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.

  • Phonology: the study of systems of sounds and their relationships to each other as phonemes (In sign languages, phonemes are not based on sound, and are spatial in addition to being temporal, they fulfill the same role as phonemes in oral languages.)
  • Morphology: the study of the structure of words and parts of words such as stems, root words, prefixes, and suffixes
  • Syntax: the arrangement of words and phrases to create sentences in a language
  • Semantics: the study of the meaning of words and phrases, including formal, lexical, and conceptual semantics
  • Pragmatics: the study of how human language is utilized in social interactions, as well as the relationship between the interpreter and the interpreted.

Linguistic researchers spend years studying how words are joined together to form concepts, and all the factors above that come together to allow for the flow of information. 

Latin, Greek, Spanish, Arabic, Hindu...

All of these languages, and thousands of others, have scholars poring over infinitesimal details that they spend years and years studying. American Sign Language has been one of those fields of study since William Stokoe, a hearing history professor at Gallaudet University, noticed students signed differently in and outside of the classroom, and began to notice patterns in the students’ vernacular. In 1971, Stokoe began a research center and enlisted two deaf researchers to work under him, and his work marked the beginning of extensive studies on American Sign Language and the fight for recognition. 

However, codes are different altogether. Often masquerading as languages, codes are simple modes of communication that translate information through decipherable symbols. A few examples of these would be nautical flags, morse code, pig latin, and so on. You would not call these languages, and rightly so, as they do not innately contain any unique element found in linguistics. Other examples of  communication modes that are not languages include Signed Exact English (SEE) and Cued speech. These codes piggyback on spoken English, and through the jumble of translation, the existing language is delivered in distorted packages. Would you feed your child random food off the shelf, not knowing the nutritional value and the dietary needs your child has? Or would you claim that you did your job, having fed them?

“Your child is in the lower percentile, and will need additional support.”

Codes can be dangerously misunderstood in the realm of deaf education. Often, cued speech and Signed Exact English (SEE) are used to teach deaf and hard of hearing students with the goal of improving their reading and writing comprehension of English. In the case of cued speech, it is also used to teach speech pronunciation. While they are useful tools in a child’s education, the danger with using these codes with deaf and hard of hearing students is that when they are prioritized in place of accessible language such as sign language, students can run into serious obstacles. Codes do not have the linguistic principles, complexity, and visualization that allow student’s minds to process information and expand. 

Additionally, due to misconceptions, these codes are hailed as superior to sign language because of their touted benefits in reading and writing comprehension. Unfortunately, this leaves a wide variety of deaf and hard of hearing children and adults without direct communication and healthy language acquisition. Even deaf immigrants, who already have varying degrees of language acquisition due to the state of deaf education in their country, are often directed to Signed Exact English (SEE) instead of American Sign Language because the resources provided to them incorrectly frames SEE as a language.

“Signing is a human right” - World Federation of the Deaf

Deaf and hard of hearing people flourish with exposure to American Sign Language, not only because they are able to communicate without restrictions, but because sign language allows for a visual, tactile comprehension of images, concepts, and storytelling that spoken and written language does not offer. Sign language opens people’s minds in ways hard to comprehend until you have learned the language yourself. All the more reason to learn!

Scientific researchers have studied sign language, its cognitive effects, and using sign language with infants regardless of their hearing status. To read more about language acquisition and its benefits, read the SAGE Deaf Studies Encyclopedia. The Second Language Acquisition textbook provides valuable insight on the social and environmental impacts of language, as well as the necessary stimuli children need to develop connections and growth. As you learn American Sign Language and become involved in the deaf and hard of hearing community, it is essential to be culturally aware of the issues and oppression the community and language faces in order to be an advocate. 

TL:DR, Sign language is a whole language, and deaf and hard of hearing people deserve access to language and education the minute they are born. Sign language is not only for deaf and hard of hearing people, but for everyone and we welcome you to join us. 

“It is my hope that we will all love and guard our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God has given to deaf people." - George Veditz

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