I met with Grigoris and Sofia, two people who know sign language, the first out of physical necessity and the second out of desire, to talk about the secrets of sign language.
By Yiorgos Toumanidis / 6.10.2013
Grigoris Petropoulos, owner and teacher of the school of sign language “Cosmos” located in the center of Thessaloniki, welcomed me in his school. Honest in his views as a man, incisive in his thought as a teacher and visionary, he explained with intimacy the terms – structural and non-structural – of the equation of sign language, the completeness and beauty of which not only reflect the skills and ingenuity of the human spirit, but are also the proof that obstacles in life can turn into steps for further development.
Although the colors prevail everywhere in the hallways «the walls in the classrooms are completely “naked” from anything that might distract the eye of the student from the teacher who is always someone deaf and teaches the language with a help of an interpreter».
«The students usually come to learn the language for professional reasons or because they have a deaf family member or friend, or even simply just because they like it. Ιn the beginning they get familiar with the basic vocabulary of sign language. They reproduce the movements they see in some pictures or a DVD. Later they compose some phrases and the teachers ask them some questions. Sometimes we invite two students into the middle of the semicircle and they communicate with each other. Gradually they are able to compose some short simple stories, so as time goes by they manage to enrich their phrases easier and faster».
«When I started sign language lessons I didn’t know that we were going to have teachers who are deaf», confesses Sophia, a psychologist by profession. «So from the first moment you come in contact with what really is the sign language and this was something that excited me»
«In sign language you can talk about your problems, about how your day was, you can tell jokes, you can tell everything. Because it is a visual-kinetic language, what characterizes sign language is the expression.»
«The expression of the body, the movements of hands, of wrists and shoulders are very important for the structure of sign language,» Grigoris explains to me. «The structure is concrete, only it is not similar to the structure of oral language. For example, in a phrase in sign language, we use the object first, then the subject, the adjective and we put the verb last. Similarly when we ask something, the interrogative pronouns or adverbs (what, how, etc.) also come at the end of the phrase in order to make clear the question to our interlocutor»
«This was a little difficult in the beginning», Sophia says, « because in oral language we are used to for example putting the verb in the middle of the sentence, while in sign language it goes in the end, but with daily communication I got used to it very easily».
«It is very important to have contact with the deaf, because it is like transforming the language into an act,» Gregory says, while adding that «also basic about the structure of sign language are the so called “classifiers”. Let’s say that with one hand I am forming the word “car” and with the other the word “tree”. When I bring them into contact I mean that the car crashed into the tree».
«With both hands I am referring to two different words. If I want to say that there are many cars I would place one palm beside the other or if I want to state the position of the car I will change the position of my palm. This makes the translation easier for someone who is asked to do it, without using many words».
Sophia has worked in the past with kindergarten and elementary school children, offering them psychological support: «I wanted to learn sign language because I would be able to see more special occasions. In a school for instance, I would be able to help a child with a communication problem if needed. I believe that sign language should be taught in schools. It will help children to communicate with each other. There are children who are born deaf and the only people who can communicate with them are their parents and it is a sad thing».
«In Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Scandinavian countries generally there is a compulsory course in primary school where children learn sign language» Grigoris informs us. «Ιn high school they can continue learning it if they wish to. It would be truly amazing if something like this happened in Greece. The society of deaf people would be embraced more easily into the society of the hearing. It will also enable some children to join mainstream schools. Now there are deaf schools that are only for deaf children. If we put a deaf child in a school with hearing children, they would be isolated and would certainly not progress as much as their classmates».
When I asked him if technology could help, he told me that: «The emergence of mobile phones which gave us the opportunity to communicate via text messages made my life easier, even if I wanted to communicate with someone who was in another city. In the past if I wanted to arrange something with my friends I had to do it much earlier. Even with the video calls which some devices support or some programs on the computer, we can see each other and communicate in sign language».
What are eventually the benefits from learning sign language? «I can’t answer that as well as some hearing people would do, people who learn sign language» Grigoris says candidly. «From what they say, they like sign language because they start to change. Change as people I mean. They gain more expression, they broaden their understanding and they meet a different culture from their own. By knowing someone deaf and communicating with them, they come into contact with something different and this is changing their inner self». For Sophia «the most important thing is that you get in touch with something different. You meet a different culture and for me this is the greatest benefit. We must always seek to widen our understanding of diversity. Deaf people are generally very extroverted and we ought to learn to communicate with them».
Before closing the conversation with Grigoris he said to me that «I am very interested in spreading the language and for people to learn about sign language. To become a little more open as a society about it. I would not want to have closed societies. I would like to see a wider society in which all individual social groups of people coexist together. We are all people after all. That is why we named our school “Cosmos”. Our goal was and still is one world united in which people live together».
I would like to thank Antonis, interpreter in practice, for the interpretation during the interview.