Communicating in Silence

A Study of Sign Language Varieties in Hong Kong

Deaf People Form Thriving Linguistic Communities Insufficient Research On Deaf People In Asia and HK

Uniqueness Of Sign Languages

What Researcher Set Out To Do

Theoretical And Applied Significance

Long-term Plans

Traditionally, hearing people have viewed deaf people as isolated, pathologically handicapped individuals. However, this view is not borne out by careful analysis of deaf communities and their sign languages. Since their inception in the United States in the 1960s, formal anthropological and linguistic studies of communication among deaf people around the world have demonstrated that deaf people in numerous countries form thriving linguistic communities, which are held together by sign languages that differ dramatically in structure and history from spoken languages used in the same countries.

Insufficient Research on Deaf People in Asia and Hong Kong

Research thus far has been focussed on American and European sign languages. In contrast, extremely little is known about sign languages and deaf people in the Asia-Pacific region. Responding to this comparative lack of information, Dr. James Woodward and Dr. Gladys Tang of the Department of English applied for and successfully obtained an earmarked grant from the Research Grants Council (RGC) in 1992 to begin an in-depth formal research into sign language varieties used by deaf people in Hong Kong.

Uniqueness of Sign Languages

Sign languages are languages with their own grammars. They do not share the same grammatical structures with spoken languages in a given country. Hong Kong sign language has a different word order and morphology from spoken and written varieties of Chinese. For example, it puts the numerals after the noun ('books three' instead of 'three books'), and emphasizes agreement between subjects, objects and verbs in sentences. Hong Kong sign language clearly belongs to a different language family from spoken or written Chinese. In structure it is closer to sign language varieties in Shanghai than it is to signing in Guangdong or Taiwan. In fact, Taiwanese sign language belongs to a different language family, and is much closer to Japanese sign language than any sign language varieties used in China or Hong Kong.

What Researchers Set Out to Do Top

With funding support from the Research Grants Council, Drs. Woodward and Tang plan to collect and then analyse in depth formational, lexical, and grammatical data on sign language varieties used by local deaf people, and to train professionals and members of the deaf community in Hong Kong in the scientific study of the structure of sign languages and deaf cultures. Concrete products that will result from the research include a large dictionary of Hong Kong sign language, a grammatical handbook for Hong Kong sign language, a Hong Kong research team trained to continue research on sign languages in the Asia-Pacific region, and a university-level course in the linguistic structure of Hong Kong sign language.

Theoretical and Applied Significance

As the first study to systematically apply historical-comparative techniques to an Asian sign language, the research will enhance the understanding of the universal and unique characteristics of different sign languages and therefore human languages in general. It will also lay the foundation for future applied programmes in such areas as sign language teaching and sign language interpretation.

But more importantly, the research will help a large group of individuals in Hong Kong to develop their potentials to the full. It should be noted that the hearing-impaired in Hong Kong are much less likely than people who are blind or people with other forms of physical handicap to receive a good secondary or tertiary education. While deaf people in many economically developed parts of the world have access to special support services in selected schools and universities, there are currently no universities in Hong Kong that offer regular special educational support services for deaf students. As a result, the great majority of Hong Kong deaf students either receive no university education, or have to go abroad to receive such education. In short, it has been difficult, if not impossible, for the majority of adult deaf individuals to achieve their full educational, and therefore, employment and economic potential in Hong Kong. This is also true of many other Asian societies with large Chinese speaking populations.

Long-term Plans


Although the current RGC funded project is expected to yield many important benefits, the researchers are convinced of a further need to expand the research and to start training services that will have an impact on the lives of deaf people and their family members. They have thus put up a long-term strategic research proposal entitled 'Asian-Pacific Sign Languages/Deaf Studies Research and Training Programme' for consideration by the CUHK Research Committee, and have successfully obtained seed-money funding for the project.

This programme is a long-term, comprehensive, interdisciplinary research and training programme on sign languages and deaf studies in the Asian-Pacific region. Research and training will first focus on Hong Kong and gradually expand in stages to incorporate Southern China and Taiwan, Northern China, East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Pacific countries. Some of the long-term objectives of this programme include the establishment of university courses in the history and grammatical structure of Hong Kong sign language and the Hong Kong deaf community, an undergraduate or postgraduate programme in spoken/sign language interpretation, and complete access to university degree programmes for deaf people in Hong Kong.

The programme as currently envisioned includes a number of interrelated individual projects that fall into five major categories: (1) sign language linguistics, (2) sign language teaching, (3) sign language interpretation, (4) deaf education, and (5) deaf awareness.

These projects will be supported by donations as well as grants from international organizations and governments. A CUHK Deaf Education Fund has also been set up at the University to collect donations that will support projects under the programme, especially those related to the development of university level education programmes in Hong Kong for deaf students. The fund was formally inaugurated in May 1994 with a generous contribution from the Hong Kong Association of Secretaries.