Sorry if this is somewhat off topic, but I have a small dream of sign language becoming a rationalist shibboleth and serving as a jumping off point for sign to spread more in society at large. I know this is pretty unlikely, but it seems worth a shot. I gave a presentation on it at a LessWrong Community Weekend, and people seemed interested. Sign language is also super intellectually interesting in its own right and is a very fun learning experience! Anyway, on with the show.


(EDIT: A few extra notes based on comments. First, I actually think ASL is pretty easy to learn from the video lectures I link below. I did okay in a one-on-one conversation with a deaf person after that. Second, you'll obviously have to weigh up if learning to sign is worth it for you. I have just tried to argue that it's more useful and enriching than you might otherwise have thought. Finally, this mostly is just a Neat Thing. The only "rationalist" aspects would come from an interest in learning neat things, and my argument that society would be better optimized if everyone knew how to sign. Sorry again for being off topic.)



I’ve been learning sign language for four years now, and I swear it’s fun like nothing else in the world. At the risk of projecting my interests onto others, I’d like to make the case for learning to sign. I’ll focus primarily on American Sign Language (ASL) since it’s what I know, but most of what I say should generalize to other sign languages too.

If you want to learn ASL, I highly recommend Dr. Bill Vicars’ materials here. Vicars has a PhD in deaf education, is deaf himself, and has published his core ASL 1 - 4 lectures online, plus much more, free of charge. He is seriously excellent.


What is sign language anyway?

First, I should explain what sign language is. The basics are probably pretty clear: it’s a language where you communicate using the shape and movement of your hands, rather than spoken or written words (although really other body parts are involved too, like facial expressions). So that’s what sign language is. But more importantly, what is it not?

ASL is not a conlang. Conlangs (or constructed languages) are purposefully invented and planned for some purpose, such as Esperanto for international communication, or Lojban for unambiguous communication.

While we’re at it, ASL is not a code for English. For example, Braille is a writing system in which an existing language is encoded into tactile form. There is even such a thing as Signed Exact English, which directly encodes each English word into a sign and maintains all the same grammatical structure. But ASL is not like these.

Furthermore, ASL is not universal. When people first learn a bit more about sign, they are very commonly surprised that, for example, Britain and America have totally different sign languages. And there’s a certain feel-good, hippy-dippy meme that, like, there can only be one sign language, man. Cuz it’s just pictures, man. I mean it’s just the symbols for the thing. It transcends language. How could there be more than one? (Someone has said this to my face.) The only problem is that it’s not true.

Instead, ASL is a natural language. It developed organically among deaf people attempting to communicate with eachother. Historically, Britain’s first school for the deaf was founded in 1760, and America’s in 1817. Before such schools, deaf people were largely isolated from any sort of deaf community, leaving little opportunity for language to develop, beyond some home sign[1] and occasional village sign[2].

With the American revolution taking place in 1776, we can see these two sign languages must have developed independently. On reflection, then, there’s no good reason to expect them to be similar. In fact, ASL has its roots in French Sign Language. The French teacher Laurent Clerc helped found America’s first school for the deaf and teach its first students. These students brought their own home and village signs, and through this language contact, ASL was born.


Why sign language is different

Confession: I don’t really care about languages. I do not find them innately interesting. This is maybe a bit embarrassing as an aspiring polymath. Many of the greatest geniuses in history spoke tons of languages! But I have basically no interest in becoming a polyglot. I even tend to agree with CGP Grey’s stance that foreign languages shouldn’t be required in American public schools and universities.

But then why do I care so much about ASL? In fact, if I were to require another language in American schools, it would be ASL. At minimum, I believe it should be offered in just about every public school, whereas currently it’s a rarity. But again, why do I care? First, a bit more history.

Up through the 1950s, oralism was the dominant mode of deaf education, which forbade signing and emphasized speech and lipreading. Alexander Graham Bell is actually a bit of a bogeyman in the Deaf world, as he fought against the spread of sign language in society, albeit with the motivation of assimilating the deaf into mainstream society.

Most linguists at the time did not recognize sign as a legitimate language. Instead, it was considered a sort of pantomime, like a game of charades deaf people played. While such pantomiming can be used to communicate, it’s certainly not a language. But after a lot of work, aided by the Civil Rights Movement, this changed, and ASL was accepted as a full-fledged natural language, every bit as legitimate as spoken English.

It’s that last point that I find very interesting. Activists argued in favor of ASL on the grounds of its similarities to spoken language. On the American Sign Language Wikipedia page, I find several such comparisons:

Stokoe noted that sign language shares the important features that oral languages have as a means of communication…

…such components are analogous to the phonemes of spoken languages...

As in spoken languages, those phonological units…

Very little comparison is made to written language. In some ways, this makes sense. ASL is delivered person-to-person, and deaf people can still learn to read, while they can’t learn to hear. So in that sense, ASL is “substituting” for speaking, but not for writing.

On the other hand, speech is primarily auditory, while writing is visual. In that sense, sign is much closer to writing. Also, many deaf people can learn to speak and lipread, in which case sign is not a replacement for speaking, but rather a separate third pillar of communication. Later we’ll even see some neat features of sign unavailable in speech or writing.

Sign is closer to speech in terms of the function it serves, so when activists were striving to get it taken seriously, this comparison made sense. I know this battle still isn’t completely won, but I think it might be worth viewing sign from a different angle now. Sign really isn’t the same as speech. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way; it’s just that sign is something more special than that.

Sign is a fundamentally different mode of communication than anything else you have learned. Learning to sign isn’t like picking up a new spoken language. It’s like spending your whole life illiterate and finally learning to read.

That is why I find it so fascinating and think everyone ought to learn it. Linguaphiles often talk of how mind-opening and mind-altering it is to learn a new language. Sign language is that times a thousand. I promise you, you can feel your brain being rewired.


Some neat features of sign language

Sign language has other things going for it, too. In terms of pure aesthetic appeal, it’s beautiful. Take this video depicting high-level ASL fluency. It might be easier to appreciate if you know some of the language, but then again, maybe not; I only want you to see how it looks. I find the sheer fluidity and expressiveness simply astounding. I think it’s such a blessing that we have these languages in our world. It would be a sadder planet without them.

Sign language is also useful. Let’s start with the basic use case: talking without making noise. This is obviously useful if you’re in a situation that demands silence, but perhaps less obviously, it helps in noisy environments, too! It can also allow you to communicate across larger distances. Communicating across a crowded room is easier in sign than in speech. When I was in 3rd grade, we used sign to ask for permission to get a drink of water or use the bathroom without interrupting the flow of instruction or mildly embarrassing ourselves in front of the class (I appreciated this so much).

More exotically, there’s the concept of signing space and placement. You can use the 3D-structure of the space in which you sign to communicate information. For example, when describing a scene, you can visually “place” objects in various locations to depict their relative locations and sizes. And this isn’t the only way to use placement. You can also introduce characters into a conversation by signing their name, and then virtually “placing” them in signing space. When you refer back to this location, you are referencing this person again.

This relates to the idea of role shifting. When recounting a dialogue, after placing the speakers in signing space, you can shift your body into a given location to indicate that you are speaking as that character. It’s a very useful and fluid way to express who was talking when, which I think outperforms simple pronoun usage in English.

It’s also been argued that babies can start learning to sign sooner than speaking, since the hands are easier to manipulate than the complex muscles of the face and throat. I haven’t been able to find thorough linguistic research on this, but I learn towards it being plausible. My wife works in daycare and preschool, and she swears it’s true! It definitely helps if children’s speech abilities are delayed.


A brighter (and cooler) future

Then there’s the accessibility argument. It would be a wonderful world if any Deaf person could walk into any establishment with the expectation that someone there will be able to sign. Many Deaf people desperately wish that all public schools taught sign language and all hearing people knew it.

On its own, this might seem like a rather large accommodation to make. But given that sign language is valuable in and of itself, I think it’s an important additional point. If we all learn this useful, mind-opening, and beautiful form of communication, we alsobring massive accessibility to a disadvantaged minority, just as an added bonus! Sweet, right?

The wonderful ASL teacher Dr. Bill Vicar’s also has an interesting tipping point model, in which he references Metcalfe's Law: “The value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.” Extending it to sign language, he argues that the more people learn ASL, the more useful it will become. If enough people start teaching and learning it, we could hit a tipping point where it becomes quite useful for everyone to know!

When I imagine a world in which everyone signs, the main thing that thrills me is how cool that would be! (And imagine how cool in particular it would be if all rationalists learned to sign!)


Which sign language to learn?

Here’s a final thought: which sign language should you learn? I’ve focused on ASL, but many countries have their own sign language. If you’re learning sign in order to communicate with your local Deaf community, then of course you should learn your local sign language. Many local sign languages, however, are quite small and/or unsupported. It may be difficult to find appropriate learning resources. In addition, if you’re learning sign language for its own sake, or for networking effects, you may want to learn one that’s bigger.

ASL is one of the largest sign languages in the world, and also one of the most well-developed and well-supported. Several of the larger sign languages are more splintered within their home countries and have less learning resources. In contrast, ASL is highly accessible, and while there are dialects within America, it’s still pretty unified.

In addition, ASL has constant contact with English, and has naturally developed some overlap ( many words are fingerspelled in English, for example). English is currently the most commonly spoken language in the world, with 66% of its speakers having it as a second language. It is the lingua franca. Perhaps ASL can serve a similar role, as a focal point to unite around.

  1. ^

    Basic signs spontaneously invented by deaf children who don’t have much other linguistic input.

  2. ^

    Formed when an unusually large number of deaf people are born in a relatively isolated area.

New Comment
23 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:27 AM

A few years ago most of the people who lived in my house at the time all signed up for an ASL class together.  I mostly retain the alphabet, though not very quickly or fluidly, but most of the others don't, even though I stopped going halfway through because I was too pregnant and nobody else had that problem.  I have never encountered an opportunity to use any signs "in the wild" since this occasion, even opportunities that weren't usable at my level but would have been if I were more conversational.  Once, before I'd ever studied ASL, I encountered a deaf customer at my summer job; I printed off some blank receipt tape so we could write to each other and that worked fine.  I'm theoretically on board with baby sign as a concept but no one has ever been able to actionably explain to me how you are supposed to sign at a baby: my experience with babies is that they require your arms for other tasks on a basically constant basis and are seldom naturalistically at an angle where they could watch a sign.  ASL is difficult to study compared with any language with an alphabet or orthographic transliteration, because you have to absorb information at the speed of conversation, not at the speed of reading; illustrations are lossy and the technical side of managing video or gif playback and visual attention thereto is much more awkward than reading static pinyin or kana or what have you.

I don't want to totally take the wind out of your sails!  ASL is cool and I agree it would be a great offering at schools.  Minimum viable sign vocabularies could, given critical mass, be a convenient subcultural toolkit, and learning the language entire is certainly at least as worthwhile a hobby as learning any other language.  But I don't think its value proposition is quite as overwhelming as you describe.

Sign for babies is totally useful, even if more in the way of dog buttons. It's quite cute seeing my <1 year old niece ask for food, show that she needs the toilet etc. using simple hand gestures that both sides understand. She doesn't have a large vocabulary by any standard, but it makes communication a lot easier and cuts down on mutual frustrations.

In practice you both say and sign what you want - the baby will pick it up quite quickly and start using the signs as soon as it can handle the physical movements, after which you can just use the verbal part and watch for the appropriate reaction.

I only recognize asking for milk (closed fist up and down) and asking for more (she opens her mouth and shows her tongue to show that her mouth is empty), but my sister uses more.

I'm theoretically on board with baby sign as a concept but no one has ever been able to actionably explain to me how you are supposed to sign at a baby: my experience with babies is that they require your arms for other tasks on a basically constant basis and are seldom naturalistically at an angle where they could watch a sign.  

Good point and interesting question. I guess when they're slightly older there are more opportunities to sign at them, and before that maybe other people around the baby need to sign too (including when they're talking to you). This raises an interesting question of how much of getting talked to vs hearing others talk to each other accounts for language adoption in babies.

"Baby sign" is just a dozen or so concepts like "more", "help", "food", "cold" etc. The main benefit is that the baby can learn to control thier hands before they learn to control thier vocal chords.

FWIW I genuinely think ASL is easy to learn with the videos I linked above. Overall I think sign is more worthwhile to learn than most other languages, but yes, not some overwhelming necessity. Just very personally enriching and neat. :)

I watched one of the videos and it was clearly a great example of the category.  And yet.  I think ease of learning varies with language and also with learner.  ASL in particular seems likely to be very interpersonally variable - I definitely found it harder than making equivalent progress in French, Chinese, or Japanese, and those last two are famously considered difficult for English-natives.  It requires manual dexterity!  If you get confused in the middle of a sign language sentence you're going to poke yourself in the ear or tangle your elbows together or something.  You have to look at people's facial expressions, they have grammatical import - you have to look at those and at their hands.  There's no good way to take notes because it has no written form or transliteration; I wound up, in my class, writing down things like "quotey eyes" (I don't even remember what that word was) and trying to hang muscle memory on the resemblance between "sorry" and "Canada".  I'm glad you find it easy and exciting!  But I believe you're overgeneralizing.

As a deaf person, I'm always teaching people to sign, like when I move into a new house, and I do see a difference between learners. Some people don't know what to do with their hands and end up "tangling their elbows together", as you so vividly describe, while others have a talent as if they'd been waiting to sign all their lives. But this gap mostly closes after 3-5 months of living together. Even people who were pretty bad at the beginning end up being able to interpret a group conversation for me.

Not to diminish the difficulty -- to do anything like interpret a group conversation, the whole group needs to put in some effort to slow down and speak only one at a time, and it's still exhausting for an interpreter who's only been learning for a few months. Not to mention the food on their plate goes cold.

I'm just saying. I don't think a lack of progress necessarily something to scare you, but then again, I don't know what it's like to learn sign without someone to sign with. Pretty sure it's usually a lot faster to become a productive conversator in any sign language than any spoken natural lang -- the only thing you really need is the hand alphabet, and then the person you're talking to can show you the signs for every new word you spell out.

I appreciate this timeline!  My emergency plan if I unexpectedly have a deaf baby one day is to find someone fluent in sign language to move in with us and do, if necessary, hardcore sign immersion, and 3-5 months is quick enough that I would not need to worry about the baby acquiring brain damage.


This reasoning as to "why you should learn sign language" is just about the benefits of sign language.

A proper explanation of why you should do X compares the benefits of doing X to the costs of doing X, and compares the sum of the benefits and costs to the opportunity cost of not doing something else. (Learning Japanese? Reading a few dozen books in the 4 years? Doing leisure activities over a four year period?)

I mean, fair enough, but I can't weigh it up against every other opportunity available to you on your behalf. I did try to compare it to learning other languages. I'll toss into the post that I also think it's comparatively easy to learn.

Your post only really compares it to other languages for the purpose of saying "yes, it really is a language". Not for deciding whether learning another language would be better than learning it.

I can’t weigh it up against every other opportunity available to you on your behalf.

I'm not expecting you to compare it to every single possibility, but it does take a lot of time, and that's something you need to take into account--the opportunity cost is huge, and you're really glossing over it. There are a lot of things you can do in four years other than learn ASL.

I've actually wondered if some kind of stripped-down sign language could be a useful adjunct to verbal communication, and specifically if a rationalist version could be used to convey epistemic status (or other non-obvious conversational metadata).

In the (outstanding) show The Expanse, a branch of humanity called "Belters" have been mining the asteroid belt for enough generations that they have begun to diverge (culturally, politically, and even physically) from <humanity-main>. They have such an adjunct sign language, originally developed to communicate in the void of space, fully integrated into their standard communication.

This seems so useful! I'm so frequently frustrated in conversations, trying to align on the same meta-level as my conversational partner, or convey my epistemic status effectively without derailing the object-level conversation.

An unrelated anecdote, on the general awesomeness of signing. Years ago, I was heading home on the NYC subway late at night, and the usual A train din precluded conversation. Most passengers were mindlessly scrolling on their phones or sullenly staring out windows, but four young men were carrying on a silent, boisterous conversation via signing, with full-body laughter and obvious joy. 

In that environment, their (presumed) general disability translated to local advantage. Still makes me happy to think about.

It would be very cool if many rationalists (and people in general) knew sign language. I would also like to know sign language.

Problem is wanting to know and wanting to learn are two different things, and learning is a language is quite a big project (especially sign language, I expect).

For me the two other things stopping me from doing that is that I have no one to speak sign language with, so I won't actually have any use for it. And also since I live in Israel I need to choose between Israeli sign language and ASL.

Coordinating around learning a new language seems like a pretty hard coordination problem (though much less difficult than some other problem, so perhaps medium difficulty). Could be a useful case for an assurance contract.

Honestly I found ASL easier to learn than, say, the limited Spanish I tried to learn in high school. Maybe because it doesn't conflict with the current way you communicate. Just from watching the ASL 1 - 4 lectures I linked to, I was surprisingly able to manage once dropped in a one-on-one conversation with a deaf person.

It would definitely be good to learn with a buddy. My wife hasn't explicitly learned it yet, but she's picked up some from me. Israel is a tough choice, I'm not sure what the learning resources are like for it.

You should put this in your main post - it greatly increased my interest in actually trying to learn.

Thanks for the feedback!

This didn't feel like it did anything to sell me on "sign language is a uniquely good thing for rationalists to prioritize learning." (This is similar to Yoav and Jiro's comments, but, theirs felt a bit more generic). Why is this a good rationalist-shibboleth-in-particular, as opposed to a generally neat thing (and sometime having shared neat things is neat?)

It's entirely just a neat thing. I think most people should consider learning to sign, and the idea of it becoming a rationalist "thing" just sounded fun to me.  I did try to make that clear, but apologies if it wasn't. And as I said, sorry this is kind of off topic, it's just been a thing bouncing around in my head.

One thing I've read somewhere is that people who sign but aren't deaf, tend to use sign language in parallel with spoken language. That's an entire parallel communications channel!

Relatedly, rationalists lean quite heavily towards explicit ask/tell culture. This is sometimes great, but often clunky: "are you asking for advice? I might have some helpful comments but I'm not sure if you actually want peoples' opinions, or if you just wanted to vent."

Combining these two things, I see possible norms evolving where spoken language is used for communicating complex thoughts, and signing is used for coordination, cohesion, making group decisions (which is often done implicitly in other communities). I think there's a lot of potential upside here.

Thanks. Love this kind of post, like rationalist community show&tell.

I've read (I don't have any first hand knowledge of it though) that in sign language dialogues both signers can be signing to each other at the same time (full-duplex) as opposed to each speaker having to wait for the other to stop (half-duplex). Might be another thing to file under "neat features".

It happens, but you can't exchange complex ideas this way. You know when someone's talking and you nod or say "Yeah" to show you get it without interrupting? There's a number of other short phrases you could say if you wanted, like "I know" or "Impossible" or "Dunno", and that's mostly what we deafies in Sweden do IME. It's rare that hearing people do this, breaks a norm I guess, but it's in principle you could do it. With sign you can also say a bit more complicated things without breaking flow like "That's a misunderstanding" or "You're lying" or sometimes drop in a whole sentence like "Actually no she didn't "... but at that point the conversation is getting heated and starting to break down.

I guess if you wanted to construct a fulltime full-duplex mode of conversation it would be a bit easier with hands than voices. Or to let one speaker use hands and the other use voice, so as to use different parts of the brain.

Sign language is also useful. Let’s start with the basic use case: talking without making noise. This is obviously useful if you’re in a situation that demands silence, but perhaps less obviously, it helps in noisy environments, too!

Some hand gestures to communicate basic messages and location specific behavior is great. like we have going to bathroom, agreeing with you, or talk to the hand. but I do not understand why we need a full language including gestures for individual letters. 

I learned ASL alphabets and common words but have largely forgotten because they are never used in daily life. but I want more hand gestures. one that comes to mind, change the topic of conversation since the current one is boring.