If you’ve watched a British movie or TV show, or if you’ve struggled to understand someone in another English-speaking country, you know that English isn’t the same worldwide. In Australia, the phrase “he lives out woop woop” means “he lives in the middle of nowhere.” In South Africa, a “medical scheme” is a legitimate method for covering healthcare needs, not a way to scam money from sick people.
If a single language contains so many differences, you can imagine the disparities between spoken languages, like English, and signed languages, like American Sign Language (ASL). Many people think ASL is just a signed form of English—that each sign has a parallel spoken word.
But ASL is its own complex linguistic system with distinct grammar rules. For example, facial expressions help convey meaning (like raising eyebrows to indicate a question), and forward and backward movements indicate future and past tenses. Throughout the world, there are over two hundred sign languages, each with its own signs and rules.
These linguistic differences help us understand why it’s imperative for Deaf peoples to have access to Scripture in their own sign languages. The Deaf Bible Society estimates at least 95 percent of sign languages have no Bible translation. You might think, “Well, a written Bible is available—why can’t they just read that?” But there are three important reasons that text-based Scripture is not ideal—and in some instances not even feasible—for ministry among the world’s seventy million Deaf.
1. Written language is not a Deaf person’s heart language.
Our heart language is the one we feel most comfortable speaking, especially when we’re having deep conversations. It’s typically the first language we learned and the one we think and dream in. Deaf people’s heart language is signed, not written. Many Deaf have learned to read, but the linguistic structures of written languages are so different from signed languages, it was like learning a foreign language while simultaneously learning to read. The foreign, written language will generally never feel as natural as sign.
“If God’s Word is not signed to the Deaf—either by an individual or on video—they will never have access to it.”
Think about it: even if you speak a second language, don’t you still choose to read the Bible and pray in your heart language? Ruby Greene,* a Deaf missionary in Central Asia, explains: “Sign language is how we process things, view things, understand ourselves, and understand God. . . . If we can receive the Word in sign language [our heart language], the barriers are gone; it goes straight to the heart, to our spirit. The Word then comes alive. . . . It’s vivid and real.”
2. Many Deaf do not read, or prefer not to read.
Some Deaf choose not to read, just like many English speakers choose to never learn a second language. Some can read things like text messages, signs, and basic instructions, but they struggle to read more complex works, like the Bible. And many others, especially in developing nations, are ostracized by society and never receive the opportunity for a formal education. So if God’s Word is not signed to them—either by an individual or on video—they will never have access to it.
3. Most Deaf have an oral, not a literate, worldview.
People with an oral worldview are literal, rather than abstract, thinkers. They learn best from stories, not concepts. So a passage like 1 John 1:5–7, which instructs believers to walk in light, not darkness, is easy to translate into sign but might be confusing for literal thinkers. That’s why IMB projects focus on translating and recording signed versions of key Bible stories rather than verse-by-verse or chapter-by-chapter translations. Even passages from Paul’s epistles can be turned into stories by framing his teachings with details from the book of Acts, which tells the stories of the churches he planted and then continued to train.
Signed Scripture Aids Church-Planting Efforts
Scripture translation is one of the highest priorities for IMB missionaries working among the Deaf because they believe the Deaf respond best to God’s Word in their heart languages. These missionaries know that church-planting efforts are most fruitful when signed Scripture is available. For example,
- When Scripture is signed, the Deaf understand the gospel more clearly.
During a Scripture translation project in Central Asia, believers were astounded when they saw in sign the passage from Ephesians 1 about God’s love and the seal of the Holy Spirit. They had read the passage before, but experiencing it in their heart language opened their eyes to how completely they belong to God and are loved by him.
- When Scripture is signed, Deaf leaders are trained in culturally appropriate ways.
A signed story set based on leaders in the Old Testament can help church leaders understand they are to “be like David, not Saul.” This is more effective in an oral culture than, say, a study that pulls from a variety of disconnected verses to identify leadership qualities.
- When Scripture is signed, Deaf churches are healthier.
A Christianity Today article about Deaf Scripture translation explains that when the Deaf only have access to written Scripture, they tend to focus on the parts that are easiest to understand, which are generally “do this, don’t do that.” Deaf churches can easily become legalistic. Signed Scripture communicates more fully the freedom and grace we have in Christ.
How You Can Share Christ and Serve Missionaries among the Deaf
- Donate to ongoing sign language Scripture translation projects. To see what signed Scripture looks like, check out the DeafGo Bible app.
- Pray for the development of strong partnerships between US churches and Christians overseas to support current translation projects for Turkish Sign Language and Russian Sign Language.
- Lead, serve, or provide childcare during conferences for Deaf believers on marriage, childrearing, and biblical manhood and womanhood.
- Serve as an interpreter during biannual IMB meetings, which require in-person translators so ASL- and English-speaking missionaries can communicate effectively.
- Consider serving as a missionary among the Deaf, even if you aren’t Deaf. Most missionaries have to learn a new culture and language, whether it’s spoken or signed, so serving among the Deaf isn’t really that different.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 800-999-3113 to learn more about these opportunities.
Melanie Clinton is a member of the IMB’s media network. She and her family have lived in South Africa for ten years.