The Difference Between Univeralism and Relativism with Sign Language Essay

The Difference Between Univeralism and Relativism with Sign Language Essay

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In our discussion of cochlear implants that, in my mind, seemed at times distastefully eugenicist, I found myself grappling with some difficult questions: How different would my experience of the world be if I communicated via American Sign Language instead of English? Does the existence of sign language benefit the world in some meaningful way? Just what, if anything, would be lost if the world lost sign language?

In trying to answer these questions, I am reminded of an aphorism my brother once shared with me that I've never forgotten: "There are two types of narcissism," he told me, "That of assuming one's experiences to be unique, and that of assuming one's experiences to be universal."

These two poles often butt their heads in debates of the respective merits of universalism and relativism. Is assuming an experience to be universal disrespectful of the phenomenological differences between cultures? Or is assuming an experience to be culturally specific disrespectful of the spirit of humanity that unites all people? Here, the specific issue in question is that of linguistic relativity. Linguistic relativity (also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) holds that either the language one speaks determines the way one experiences the world (in the strong version of this hypothesis) or influences the way one experiences the world (in the weak version.) The accuracy of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would to me suggest that the phenomenological experience of being deaf (and communicating via sign language) is meaningfully different from that of being hearing, and that the loss of sign language, or any language, should be concerning to us.

It turns out that one of the most helpful areas for studying linguistic relativity is that of th...


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...f. The first team member described to the second how to set up the dollhouse according to the picture. In the case of of the hearing team, this task was tedious and ultimately not quite successful--the instructions were often verbose, redundant, or unspecific. The deaf describer, on the other hand, was able to orient the furniture in space through the very language he used! The results were both more efficient and more accurate.

Perhaps this study in itself does not prove linguistic relativism between ASL and English; the study tested only the use of language and not the experience of language. But it is not a great leap to imagine that one experiences space differently when one's very language is spatial. In either case, it is clear that the experience of using ASL is a creative experience distinct from using English, and not merely a different way of description.

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