I spent a day last weekend with a group of people meeting friends across the border through sign language. I had expected the process to be relatively straightforward. I would speak to an interpreter, who would sign my questions to an interpreter on the other side, and relay a response.

I hadn’t expected the communication to take on as many layers as it did.

I was surprised to learn of the differences between American and Mexican Sign Languages. They’re two distinct languages, each unintelligible to speakers of the other, and each with little relation to English and Spanish.

So my interpreter, who knew only American Sign Language, would transmit my English across the border in ASL. The interpreter on the other side could translate that into any of the three other languages she spoke fluently: English, Spanish, and Mexican Sign Language (LSM).

At other times, the signs sent across were simple mimicry.

I’ve been catching myself this week saying “signing in English” or “signing in Spanish.” This, I learned is wrong, as explained in this fascinating short research paper from Mexico’s Summer Institute of Linguistics on the differences among ASL, LSM, English and Spanish.

It should be made clear that sign languages are not gestured versions of spoken languages … LSM signs are not connected directly to Spanish words, nor are American Sign Language signs connected to English words; rather, each sign has a meaning independent of its Spanish or English gloss.

And while in the United States deaf people often learn written English and sign language concurrently, in Mexico, people who go to schools for the deaf often learn to speak Spanish and read lips (made easier by the uniform pronunciation of Spanish vowels) without learning sign language.

Then there are others who do learn LSM, but remain monolingual because they don’t learn Spanish. They can only communicate with people who know LSM.

This contributes to the deaf community’s relative marginalization there, as Dan Watman indicated in my story. At Tijuana City Hall, deaf programming is coordinated in the department of human rights and vulnerable persons.

But borders do interesting things to language. Like almost all else characterized by its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border, sign language too is affected. According to Norma Villegas, who interpreted for me Saturday, both in San Diego and in Tijuana there is a greater degree of cross-language understanding among those who speak sign language than you would find in the interior of either country.


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