Sign language is often perceived as being a universal form of communication, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s more of an umbrella term for a vast collection of hand- and gesture-based languages.
Sign language is most often derived from the spoken language of a nation or area of its development, and as each language is so distinct, so too is the sign language it births.
Different cultures express themselves uniquely, and the special aspects of a language must translate into the signed form if users are to truly, fluidly communicate.
Did you know that there are around 300 forms of sign language in use right now around the globe? It’s amazing, right?
There’s Libras (LSB, LGB, LSCB), the sign language used in urban Brazil; Langue Des Signes Francais (LSF), the French form; Lingua Dei Segni Italiana (LIS), the Italian form; and Indo-Pakistani Sign Language (IPSL) used by roughly 7 million people across the Indo subcontinent. And that’s to name just a few.
Even nations that speak the same core language can have different official forms of sign language. American Sign Language (ASL), for instance, is completely different from British Sign Language (BSL), used in the UK.
In fact, there can be multiple sign languages used within an individual nation, which can get a little confusing for the people using them. If two signers meet one another, and they subscribe to different sign forms, how are they to communicate with one another? Well, in some instances, by using PSE.
PSE Sign Language — A Definition
Sometimes referred to as Conceptually Accurate Signed English (CASE), PSE stands for Pidgin Signed English, and it can be thought of as a bridge language. It connects American Sign Language with Manually Coded English (MCE) by incorporating signs and syntax employed by both forms.
What Is PSE Sign Language Used For?
PSE provides a basic means of cross-sign communication. It’s like having a translator in the room with you, but the language itself is responsible for the translation.
Conceptually speaking, it’s a magical thing, but what’s even more amazing about PSE is that it’s a very flexible language, malleable in the hands of each individual user, with the ultimate goal of making people “heard”.
It’s also commonly paired with fingerspelling in order to improve each user’s understanding of more complicated signed words and phrases (fingerspelling is the act of using hand signs that represent individual letters to spell out a word).
To call PSE simply a bridge language is a little reductive. It’s also a very popular signing form for those who lose their sense of hearing later in life. As their communicative abilities are ingrained in the syntactical form of spoken English, PSE feels more natural than ASL alone, as it follows English grammar and syntax very closely.
As I mentioned a moment ago, PSE isn’t really a definite language, rather, there are various different subtypes of PSE. Some stay fairly true to direct spoken English, while others rely heavily on ASL.
What Is Manually Coded English (MCE)?
Whereas PSE is a compromise between the signed form of direct spoken English and the American form (ASL), Manually Coded English, or MCE, is designed to follow direct spoken English to a tee.
While it does use body language and facial expressions to emphasize the signing, as it’s a very literal translation of direct spoken English, it’s not quite as reliant on secondary gestures as ASL.
MCE is still employed by educational facilities as a means of improving the literacy skills of deaf learners, or those with speech or language difficulties, and while, to this end, it can be effective, it’s not without its controversies.
Many worry that MCE has, and is, being used as a means of denying the natural languages of deaf communities in English-speaking nations. Being that MCE is used to teach “good English”, the binary implication is that standard, or natural, forms of sign language are examples of “bad English”, disregarding the fact that standard forms become whole new languages in of themselves.
As MCE is thought of as an unnatural form of sign language, it’s asserted by many that its use denies a child access to language as a whole, and in a certain respect, they’re correct.
Even though the sign languages of English-speaking nations are, at their roots, derived from the oral and written traditions, they’re no longer all that similar to them.
Therefore, forcing MCE on a deaf learner rather than ASL, BSL, or any of the other natural sign languages of the English-speaking nations, is no different to the linguistic colonialism seen throughout history.
English oppressors have always tried to oust the native languages of the nations they invade, especially if said nations are geographically nearby. They tried to stamp out Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, and Welsh, because, with the death of language, follows the death of culture, leaving a vacuum that can be filled with English values.
Now, I’m not saying institutions are intentionally trying to harm the culture of deaf communities as the English did to occupied nations, but the damage being done is very real, regardless of intention.
So, as you can see, PSE isn’t just about bridging the gap between deaf people but bridging the gap between the relexification of oral language and a natural sign language, allowing deaf individuals to enjoy a higher standard of living.
Ultimately, PSE is the door to the culture of deaf communities in English-speaking nations. Once someone has let go of rigid oral linguistic structures, they can enjoy a whole new world of expression, a culture of their own, rife with unique art, thoughts, and values.
What Is PSE Sign Language? Summing Up
Well, there you have it, folks. On the surface, PSE is a way for people to communicate despite subscribing to different sign languages, but in reality, it’s so, so much more than that.
PSE sign language provides a pathway for deaf people to assimilate with others like themselves, to experience the luminous silver lining of their impairment, to be embraced by a culture so rich and inviting that “impairment” no longer seems like an appropriate word.