Raising the Status of Sign Language
Photo of Professor James Woodward having a friendly chat with students

Sign Language: The Primary Languages of Deaf People

One of the pillars of the Nippon Foundation’s programs for deaf people is the promotion of instruction in local sign languages. Sign languages are to deaf people what the spoken languages are to those who can hear. The foundation supports these educational initiatives in the belief they constitute a major step toward enabling deaf people to give full play to their talents and abilities.


People often assume a sign language is simply the pantomimed equivalent of a spoken language, but this is not true. In a pamphlet issued by the Japanese Federation of the Deaf, sign language is described as “a visual language for communicating and giving form to thoughts through a combination of movements of the hands and fingers, facial expressions, and other things; it is the first language of deaf people.” Each sign language has its own distinct vocabulary and grammar, and the deaf community of a particular country and region use it to express their own unique culture. The Nippon Foundation’s programs for deaf people are grounded on the recognition that a sign language serves as their primary language.

In collaboration with the Nippon Foundation, James Woodward, formerly a professor at Gallaudet University in the United States and a leading authority on sign linguistics, has been involved in educational programs for the deaf and has achieved notable success in instituting programs to promote sign language in Thailand, Vietnam, and other countries. Woodward is currently taking part in a project to encourage the use of sign languages and compile sign language dictionaries from his base at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He stresses that his own work teaching deaf students over the years has made him aware of the importance that classes in sign language have.

Photo of James Woodward“With sign languages, you use your eyes, not your ears,” says Woodward. “Accordingly, the methods by which deaf people learn differ from those by which hearing people do. One reason sign languages were not introduced into schools until recently was that hearing people unilaterally decided deaf individuals should learn to speak. People who were not able to produce sounds were in some instances assumed to be less capable. I strongly feel that just as hearing people can take classes in their spoken language, people who are deaf should have the opportunity to study in their sign language because it is their primary language.”

Until recently, schools for the deaf around the world instructed students in spoken languages, a method that requires the students to read lips. In Japan, deaf students are generally not taught sign language, even though Japanese is part of the curriculum. Many regions around the world do not even have schools for the deaf, and children are either mainstreamed into regular public schools, where they naturally cannot keep up with the schoolwork and are treated as “failures,” or are not able to attend school.

Sign Language Holds the Key to Empowering Deaf People

Woodward describes the difficulties of lip reading. “Some people think deaf people can get by as long as they read lips, but words are produced not just by the lips but at the back of the mouth, and it’s very difficult to catch everything that’s being said. Deaf people can lead lives as full and productive as people who can hear if given the chance. Instruction in the local sign language is a big part of what this chance is about.”

Deaf people living in regions where they have access to a higher education have made considerable strides foward in society. In 1864 the world’s first institute of higher education for deaf people, named Gallaudet University, was established after then President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill authorizing its founding. In 1967 the National Technical Institute for the Deaf opened its doors in Rochester, New York, becoming the first institute of technology for the deaf and hard of hearing in the world. Both institutions provide instruction in American Sign Language, and the graduates have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and other professionals. The Nippon Foundation has a scholarship program for students who wish to attend these colleges from developing countries, where educational opportunities for deaf students are limited. One of the goals of the scholarships is to foster a new generation of leaders among deaf people.

Changing People’s Mindsets

Woodward believes that as more people come to be aware that sign languages are the primary languages of deaf people, communication between hearing and deaf individuals will grow.

“People who want to do business in another country need a good interpreter. An interpreter who understands both languages holds the key to good communication between the two sides. Those who wish to live in another country naturally need to learn the language of that country. In the case of people who can hear, a similar system of support is needed when interacting with deaf people, because they speak in sign language. That’s why we put a lot of effort into training sign language interpreters. Hearing people tend to think, “We need to help them because they have a disability,” while deaf people often feel it’s enough that hearing people accept their use of sign language. Solutions to many problems are forthcoming as long as this understanding is there. But our ultimate goal is to strive for communication between the hearing and non-hearing in a relationship between equals.”

It will not be easy to change the mindset that hearing is the norm. Government intervention and legislation have a major role to play in this regard. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006, specified that sign languages are languages in their own right, and moves are underway in various countries to create the legal underpinnings for this. In Kenya, Kenyan Sign Language was included as an official language in the Constitution thanks to the efforts of Nickson Kakiri, who graduated from Gallaudet University on a Nippon Foundation World Deaf Leadership Scholarship.

The revised Basic Act for Persons with Disabilities in 2011 became the first Japanese legislation to include Japanese Sign Language as a language. Demand has since grown for instruction in Japanese Sign Language, interpreting services, and the formulation of a sign language law. Tottori Prefecture is playing a pioneering role now as the first prefecture to draft an ordinance recognizing Japanese Sign Language as a language.

“Communication between the hearing and non-hearing is simply communication between people who have different primary languages.” Such is the motto of Woodward and the vision of the Nippon Foundation, which also seeks to pave the way for the full participation of deaf people in the community. The foundation will continue to join forces with Woodward in the goal of realizing a better world for deaf people and hard of hearing people.

Photographs by Hisayoshi Osawa except for the final photograph.