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Deaf Education Options Guide

Manual Codes for English

General Description:

A manual code for English is an artificial system. Its purpose is to present spoken English visually. “Sign codes have been designed to convey, insofar as possible, the detailed structure and grammar of the spoken language.”87 The end goal of using these systems is English literacy. The rules are different from code to code. They all use English word order and they are signed while speaking simultaneously.


The obvious advantage to any of these systems is that they are, in relative terms, easier for parents and teachers to learn. The vocabulary is different, but there is no need to learn a new grammar. These systems are useful to individuals who have not made progress in oral programs. MCEs can start the communication ball rolling. “The frustration level dropped significantly when we added sign to oral language. [There was] almost an immediate increase in vocabulary usage and understanding. The deaf child has a hard time distinguishing a difference with just oral communication alone, when the sign is added, they can see the difference and listen carefully for the difference.”88 Some parent/child pairs have been successful using these methods. These families have made progress with the manual codes. One parent commented: “Joel loves to read and is thankful he learned signed English to help him understand and read English so well.”89


There are disadvantages to Manual Codes as well. Manual codes tend to be slower to use. “On an average signs take twice as long as words to produce.”90 It is very hard to speak and sign at the same time. When native English speakers sign they tend to leave up to 50% of the signs out of any given statement. “The research shows that most parents and many teachers who are trying to use these systems end up leaving out many of the grammatical markers and the children exposed to them end up modifying them to more ASL-like forms.”91 If the purpose of using an MCE is to give a deaf child a language base on which to build, parents need to be aware that MCEs are hybrids. Hybrids rarely perform as well as either of the parent languages. “I am NOT in favor of signing and speaking at the same time. Why mix TWO languages and send a message that is NEITHER.“92 Perhaps the most disheartening fact is that, in spite of twenty years worth of refining these systems, deaf teenagers continue to graduate high school reading at the 3rd to 4th grade level. Literacy has not been significantly improved. “Paul and Quigley cite six studies, all of which include that the average deaf high school graduate reads at the fourth grade level. This argues that the designed signing systems, then, may not be successful ‘when success is defined as empowering deaf students leaving school with literacy and general knowledge at or near the level attained by their hearing peers.’”93

Seventy percent of the programs in the United States are sign-based. Most of those programs use some type of MCE. “Of the remaining 67% of the students who are D/HH and who are exposed to sign in the United States, most are in programs in which sign is used in conjunction with speech.”94 The simultaneous use of speech and sign is known as Simultaneous Communication (SimCom). The two most commonly used Manual Codes are Signing Exact English (SEE-2) and Bornstein’s Signed English.

Signing Exact English (SEE-2):

People who use SEE-2 speak when they sign. SEE-2 was designed “to correspond with the number of morphemes (or smallest units of meaning) of English.”95 So the word “butterfly” is only one sign because butterfly has one unit of meaning. The word “underline” is composed of two signs because it is composed of two morphemes. “If the meaning of the words separately is consistent with the meaning of the words together, then and ONLY then are they signed as the component words.”96 Many of the signs are borrowed from ASL, however, certain signs are distinguished from others by initializing the signs. For example, the sign for team, class and group is the same base sign. The only difference is that the hands are in the shape of a manual “t”, “c” or “g”. Grammatical markers for number, tense and person are added. Prefixes and suffixes are also added to base signs. All articles, conjunctions, and helping verbs are signed. This system has an odd rule. This rule is called the two-out-of-three rule. This rule applies to words that sound identical. A word that sounds like another word is weighed against three different criteria: sound, meaning and spelling. Words that differ in only one category will use the same sign. For example: right (direction) and right (correct) are signed identically. They sound alike and are spelled alike. However, write and right would be signed differently because they are spelled differently and also mean two different things. SEE-2 tends to be less conceptual and more literal.

Signed English:

Signed English is also signed while speaking English simultaneously. English word order is generally used. This manual code was originally meant for young children, however entire programs began using this method. Some signers are more conceptual in their signing, while others tend to be literal signers. Most of the signs in Signed English have ASL origins. Bornstein’s basic rules are: “sign either a word alone or a sign word and one sign marker; fingerspell words not provided in the dictionary; and create plurals by repeating the signs for nouns.”97 Signed English has fourteen affix markers (e.g. –ing, -s, -ed, -y etc.) Signed English has fewer markers than SEE-2 and once the child understands the use of the marker, adult users may drop the marker. The verb “to be” is signed. Homonyms are sometimes signed the same and other times are signed based on the conceptual meaning.

Contact Sign:

Contact sign was known for many years as Pidgin Sign English or PSE. It is considered a contact language. When people have two different languages and desire to communicate with each other, contact languages are the natural outcome of their communication. In the case of contact sign, the two parent languages are English and ASL. Contact sign is actually its own entity and has influences from both languages. Contact sign was not designed or invented as in the case of the MCE. Contact sign cannot be taught. It is, instead, the natural result of bilingual interaction. The sole purpose of contact sign is communication. Contact sign can be more English in its presentation or more like ASL, depending on the skill of the signers.

Contact sign is a commonly accepted form of communication between deaf and hearing people. Contact sign is used between deaf signers as well. If the parents are in the process of learning ASL, contact sign will be a natural artifact of their learning process. If the parents want their child to learn ASL, they should expose their child to native ASL signers because the child will need good language models.98