I’ve been in Taiwan for about 3 weeks now, mostly sightseeing, getting settled, and finishing paperwork for my new job. My new teaching position doesn’t start until September so I still have a lot of free time; I decided to take a Taiwanese Sign Language (TSL) class.
The class is arranged by the Chinese National Association of the Deaf R.O.C., two sessions a week, two hours each. There are only a handful of students in the class with varied experiences with TSL. Though I have no experience with TSL, I have taken some classes on American Sign Language and I’ve enjoyed learning the language dearly. I enjoy learning to communicate with my hands and facial gestures as well as learning about Deaf culture in general. Since I’m living in Taiwan now, I decided that this was the perfect chance for me to learn something about TSL and Deaf culture in Taiwan.
Tonight was my first class and here are some immediate impressions and observations I have from my first experience trying to learn the language:
- I’m actually learning 1.5 new languages. TSL is inextricably tied to Mandarin Chinese, in the same way that ASL is inextricably tied to English. I’m not saying that TSL is just the visual/signed version of Mandarin (or that ASL is just a signed version of English). That would be too simplistic. TSL, ASL, Mandarin Chinese, and English all of their own unique grammars, vocabularies, ways of usage, histories, and prior influences. In other words, knowing any one of these languages would not allow you to automatically understand any of the others. However, in the same way that ASL is used in America where English is dominantly used, TSL is used in Taiwan where Mandarin Chinese is dominantly used. Therefore, the means through which the signed language taught is through the aid of the spoken language used amongst the hearing learners. When I was handed the TSL class syllabus, I was handed a paper completely written in Mandarin. All of the TSL signs are partnered with vocabulary words/phrases written in Mandarin. And when the teacher needs to explain something to us, he writes on the board – in Mandarin. Since my Mandarin reading skills are elementary at best, this is providing an extra layer of challenge beyond the fact that I’m learning a new language. It’s almost like I’m learning 1.5 of a new language. While it’s definitely a challenge, it’s also helping me practice and brush up on my Mandarin reading skills.
- As with all signed languages, TSL is extremely different from ASL. The next few points will go through what kind of differences I’m noticing…
- TSL is more pictoral compared to ASL, kind of like how Mandarin is more of a pictoral language compared to English. In situations where an ASL user might fingerspell to spell out a word, in Chinese, you can’t “spell” out a word. Instead, you use individual signs that represents the character in some way. For example, the sign for 回 (to come back) is to draw an outer box with your two index fingers around the inner box, which would be your mouth.
- The way TSL works linguistically is intertwined with how Taiwanese/Chinese culture works pragmatically. For example, in America, asking/giving someone’s first name is common, whether it’s in English or ASL. However, in Taiwan, asking/giving someone’s family name (what would be the last name in English) is more common, whether it’s in Mandarin or TSL. Therefore, instead of learning “What’s your name?”, we learning “What’s your family name?”in TSL. Also, Mandarin Chinese has many more specific titles for the different positions in a family tree. For example, each Uncle and Aunt has a different title, depending which side of the family they are from and how old they are. Similarly, TSL has more signs for different and specific positions in the family tree than ASL does.
- There are still similarities in how TSL and ASL function linguistically. For example, both emphasize the position of the hand(s), the placement of the hand(s) relative to the rest of your body, and the facial expressions you make. Those are all crucial factors in communicating the right meaning in TSL and ASL. Both have differences in how the language is used based on region. For example, there are many differences between how TSL is used in Northern Taiwan (like Taipei) and Southern Taiwan (like Tainan). So far, I’ve found it helpful to have some knowledge of ASL.
I’m really excited for the many lessons to come. It’s only my first day so it’s very likely that these observations are premature. Can’t wait for the next lesson!