In our latest study, we are looking at semantic fields: numbers, colours and kinship. If you think a bit naively about numbers and how you might gesture, you would think that for numbers you would just use your fingers: 10 fingers for 'ten', for example. But actually different sign languages have very much their own grammars for numerical domains. And we've also found things that are not found anywhere in spoken languages; for example, making a sign bigger to mean more zeros.
Another area of your work is the study of sign languages in small communities that have hereditary deafness. What specific qualities have you identified in the sign languages of discrete communities such as these?
Maybe the most interesting thing is the organisation of the signing space in the languages of these communities. In most sign languages, the space around the body is used in a metaphorical way; for example, 'past' is behind you and 'future' is in front of you. But there is a sign language called Kata Kolok in Bali that doesn't use the space around the body for any non-spatial purposes.
Your latest project is a study funded by the European Research Council ERC that is looking at bilingualism and multilingualism in users of sign language. Do people who use more than one sign language share any linguistic traits with people who speak more than one language, such as switching unconsciously between the two languages?
Yes, this 'code switching' between two languages works pretty much in the same way in sign languages as it does in spoken languages. We’re also trying to explore how deaf people with no shared language communicate. If two deaf people meet and they have no language in common, they will still improvise some kind of communication based on the iconic potential of sign language and on their meta-linguistic skills. This kind of thing doesn't happen with spoken languages, because if you meet someone from Japan who can only speak Japanese, you are not going to be able to have a conversation with them as a hearing person because you don't have a lot to rely on.
This is something that some researchers call the 'deaf gain', meaning something where deaf signers have an advantage over hearing speech users because they can do something that speakers of spoken languages can't do.
You've mostly studied non-western sign languages. What drew you to study languages from further afield rather than the perhaps more familiar languages of Europe and the Western world?
Partly it's my personal biography. The first time I became aware of sign languages as a topic was when I was in Jordan studying spoken Arabic. I saw sign language interpreting on television and became interested – I had not seen it in Germany, where I am from. In addition, during my Master's degree in Germany I specialised in oriental languages, so I speak Arabic, Turkish, Hindi and Urdu. My institute works quite a bit with governments and makes proposals to university administrations, and because I know the local cultures and speak the local language it's much easier to lobby and get something done.
iSLanDS states that its aim is not only to engage in cutting-edge research, but also to contribute to the empowerment of deaf communities around the world. How do you go about engaging with deaf people and ensuring they benefit from your research?
We don't really make this distinction between research and empowerment. Even with 'highbrow' work, like the ERC project, we always find ways to make the research relevant to the people in the deaf communities we work with, for instance by involving people from these communities as language and research consultants.
But the main way we do this is by employing people from deaf communities as researchers at iSLanDS. We are a very unique institution because all academics here except me and all our research students are deaf, and they are mostly doing sign language research in their own countries. That's tremendous in terms of community capacity building and having deaf role models to inspire other deaf people to seek access to university-level education. We work as a sort of 'factory' for deaf academics at all levels; so far we have taken seven deaf students through postgraduate research degrees and over 30 through an international BA that we teach in India.
Do you feel that you and other researchers in your field have an ethical imperative to do empowering work given that you're working with disadvantaged groups?
Yes, very much so. If you are a sign language linguist, you have to be aware that the main problem in deaf communities is a linguistic problem. If you can solve the issues with language and linguistics, afterwards the deaf communities will solve everything else for themselves. The scenario is different for people who work on spoken languages, such as with Australian aboriginal communities, because these communities often face a lot of challenges and language is just one of them.
So this concept of 'giving back to the deaf community' has been around for a long time in sign language linguistics. But at my institute, we are already a step further. We don't do a project and then at the end start thinking about what to give back: deaf people are involved right throughout our projects. And because our institute works predominantly with developing countries, there's more urgency, as many of these countries don't have resources like sign language courses.
Dear Prof. Zeshan, thank you very much for this interesting and inspiring interview!
Interview: Helen Jaques