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In English we say "I speak sign language," I'm curious if the same idiom exists in other languages too or do they refer to it differently?

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    Do we actually say that? I mean, I’m sure it exists, but it seems much more common to me (non-empirically) to say, “She knows sign language” rather than “She speaks sign language” for the ability, and “She’s signing” rather than “She’s speaking sign language” for the action. Even so, I’m sure it’s used in other languages as well. A quick Google search reveals that Danish and Swedish definitely use it, and I’m sure many others do as well. Dec 15, 2022 at 4:09
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    @JanusBahsJacquet well I can only attest for my own preferences, but I am curious about the last part of your comment. “She’s signing” is a sentence fragment and doesn't sound right to me. I think we usually refer to the conversation itself rather than the individual in these cases, "They're speaking sign language" is how it would typically be said, correct?
    – Matt
    Dec 15, 2022 at 5:27
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    Not how I would say it, no. “She’s signing” is not a sentence fragment, just like “She’s driving” isn’t – it’s a complete sentence. Dec 15, 2022 at 10:04
  • In Ukrainian and Russian, one wouldn't typically use “to speak sign language”, but instead the phrases that translate “to know sign language” or “to wield~master sign language” are used, while as for spoken languages all the three ways are pretty typical.
    – Yellow Sky
    Dec 15, 2022 at 10:16
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    I think people (Deaf activists I assume; I don't know "who" exactly) are trying to popularize the word "speak" to be used with signed languages, to say that it's a legitimate language. Here's a video that came to mind youtu.be/B9jeRxTGKm8 that's expressing this.
    – awe lotta
    Dec 18, 2022 at 1:51

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In the major varieties of Chinese, using the usual words for "speak" (Mandarin: 說/说 shuō or 講/讲 jiǎng; Cantonese: 講 gong2) for sign language would be distinctly odd and non-native. Even on the wild spaces of the Sinophone Internet, it is not attested.

For oral languages using 說 or 講 is standard:

我聽不懂,他在講英語嗎?

Wǒ tīng bù dǒng, tā zài jiǎng yīngyǔ ma?

I can't understand [him] - is he speaking English?

But actually this is restricted to the literal act of speech in English. The native idiomatic equivalent of the English question "Do you speak English?" is to use a verb relating to "can / to be able to" or "to know" (Mandarin: 會/会 huì; Cantonese: 識 sik1) directly with the object, and this is true of oral and sign languages. Pairing this with 說/講 is nonetheless possible for oral languages.

Rather, the most common verb for "to be signing a sign language" is the equivalent of "to use", Mandarin: 用 yòng, Cantonese also using: 使 sai2.

This means it is identical in form to "to use sign language", and this is especially common as a coverb "to use sign language to..." It is not uncommon to have such collocations as: 用手语说, literally "to use sign language to say".

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  • This is more or less what I would have guessed at as well (though I was too lazy to go Googling to check). I find it interesting that Chinese speakers do still associate 手语 with 说 in catenative constructions – I would probably have guessed at something like 用手语表示/表达(出来)‘use sign language to express…’ as more likely. Dec 30, 2022 at 23:26
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I would think the catenative constructions are not a very strong argument. Because we could also say "用图片(数字)表达出来". it is just a way to express what you want to say. You can use 'pics or numbers', etc. Personally, I would agree with Michaelyus that it is more common to use the verb "用" or "会"。
    – Yili Xia
    Dec 31, 2022 at 1:39
  • @Xia.Yili Well, yes, that was sort of my point. 表示/表达 is broader and can be used for anything you use to express something in some manner, so that’s the verb I would have guessed Chinese speakers would use. But you wouldn’t (normally) say 用图片/数字说 – that doesn’t make sense in most cases. So what I find it interesting is that, even though you don’t say *说手语, you do still say 用手语说. Dec 31, 2022 at 2:21
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I totallt agree with you that we do say 用手语说 but in this case, 手语 is the object of 用. "说" is more expressing what the speaker means. so is the sentence 用图片说出好故事. It is acceptable. In both cases, 说 is more like 表达。 My understanding of "说+a language" is that languages following 说 must be outspoken. There is a lexical ambiguity of the verb 说。 If it means 'speak' but not 'express', it is more restricted.
    – Yili Xia
    Dec 31, 2022 at 3:53
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In French too we'd say « Je parle la langue des signes. », as well as Hungarian „Beszélek jelnyelven.”, I think it's a pretty natural way to describe it, as it is undeniably considered as a language for anybody in the world, and we're used to saying we "speak" languages, so I guess this one doesn't make an exception.

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In Urdu/Hindi, Pakistan Sign Language is described as اشارہ کی زبان ishārā kī zubān literally the “tongue of signs.” In Pakistan Sign Language itself the signs for speaking outloud and speaking (in signs or audibly) both involve gesturing to the mouth.

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The equivalent of “to speak sign language” exists in all of the Nordic languages, although in my experience people are somewhat more likely to say that they “use” that language.

In Swedish, at least, the phrase “to speak sign language” is commonly encountered both in colloquial speech and in official documents, very often in the sense ‘to know sign language‘. The following is from a report submitted to the Swedish Ministry for Culture in 2017:

Teckenspråkstolkning innebär att en person som talar teckenspråk översätter det talade språket till teckenspråk.

(“In sign language interpretation, a person who knows sign language translates the spoken language into sign language.”)

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