Getting the Message


In this week’s Letter From Prague, Dominik Jun describes an unusual encounter that ended up bridging a communicational divide.

Prague’s Hany Bany bar near the Vltava river in the city centre is an interesting haunt. Unlike the tourist/ foreigner/ Czech segregation that often occurs in the Czech capital, this bar features a heady mix of all three. Sitting there one evening, I was surprised to find yet another group in this cosmopolitan, if often overcrowded and smoky haunt. Behind me, was an entire table full of people talking in sign-language. This silent spot in an otherwise noisy bar seemed fascinating, if somewhat removed from its surroundings. A group of about ten or so deaf and dumb young people (they later noted that they preferred the phrase hearing impaired) were sitting, chatting away using sign language and generally enjoying themselves. Infused by a spirit of camaraderie, I decided to do something that no-one else in the bar seemed comfortable attempting, to try to cross the communication barrier that clearly separated us. So, I turned my back on my table and greeted the deaf group with a wave and a smile. It wasn’t long before I realized that the group was actually split into two camps, one was truly deaf and dumb, the other was comprised of hearing people that had learned sign-language and worked with the first group.

After a bit of fumbling for what to say or more importantly how to say it, I realized that the hearing people in the group weren’t going to help me by cheating with ordinary words. They would nod or shake their heads at my questions but that was all – instead, they were going to teach me to communicate through sign language. Pretty soon, I learnt some things I didn’t know - that far from being a universal international language as I had believed, signing is actually full of local specificities. Thus, the Czech sign for something can be very different from the international one. I also learnt, quite to my surprise that many signers are so used to this form of communication that they have problems reading – they simply see the written word as somewhat alien. “I had no idea.” I said, completely surprised by this fact. My next lesson took considerably longer. After observing the sign for “woman” I made a rather crude joke about what the sign for the word “man” might be – use your imaginations. But there was something specific about my joke that the group wanted to express. To their credit, they were incredibly patient, giving me time to figure out, in true Simon Says style what each and every sign they were making meant. I tried to decode the language from a purely logical and symbolic perspective. As I struggled, I could see that they too were learning that what seemed an obvious way to express a word to them was often completely alien to an outsider like me. After a while, I finally figured out what they had been trying to tell me for the last three-quarters on an hour. My joke about the sign for “man” could not work in sign language. Why? Because, crucially, the entire space for signing was limited to the area above the waist and below the eyes. Eureka!

I immediately expressed my gratitude at their patience and willingness to teach me something new. “How many problems in this world are caused simply because of communication?” I mused. After some querying about how signers viewed the concepts of poetry and rhyming (with problems apparently), I proudly turned back to my table and began to show my friends the sign for “space” and “Czech” and of course “man” and “woman.” But before I could feel too proud of myself, a girl at the table responded “I used to know sign language quite well, I learnt it on a course years ago. But I’ve pretty much forgotten it now.”