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Stamping out prejudice with linguistic research: Prof Gladys Tang’s sign bilingual academy

“I admire Shakespeare, he’s undoubtedly one of our greatest thinkers,” says Prof Gladys Tang, who is known for her expertise in sign linguistics and some twenty years of deaf education advocacy – despite being hearing herself. Her deep-seated concern towards the minority groups was borne of her love for literature.

"Oftentimes in life, simply making a choice is not as straightforward as it seems."

Referring to the indecision plaguing the eponymous hero of her favourite play, Hamlet, she likens his struggles to the confusion met by many deaf individuals including their parents. To communicate or not to communicate with sign language, that is the question.

Gladys is a professor at the Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages at CUHK, and is also the director of the Centre for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies (CSLDS). Googling “sign language” and “scholar” meets you with a slew of her research articles and media coverage – Hong Kong Sign Language: A Trilingual Dictionary with Linguistic Descriptions, a sign language app, and of course her flagship venture, SLCO Community Resources Limited (SLCO-CR). She and her team established the social enterprise with the aid of CUHK’s Sustainable Knowledge Transfer Project Fund (S-KPF) in 2016, promoting sign bilingual education and social inclusion through parent-child classes, deaf education and sign interpretation services.

Was it an experience of her own or someone close to her, that spurred her on in her persistent inquiry in the field? As it turns out, it was a beautiful coincidence.

Prof Gladys Tang and a few of her colleagues at CSLDS. They have built upon the fruits of their labours, feeding the research achievements of CSLDS into the later-founded SLCO-CR organisation to amplify their societal impact. (Photo: SoCUBE)

Literature aficionado turned linguist

“After doing my PhD, I had my heart set on (English) teacher training and continued with my second language acquisition research.” From a young age, Gladys, raised in Shau Kei Wan, possessed an immense interest in languages. Back in the 70s and 80s, the library and movie centre offered the fastidious youngster a cultural sanctuary. Graduating from a prestigious school, she had achieved an excellent command of English, as well as fostered a love for Chinese writers like Chiung Yao, Hsin Yen and Sanmao. She was eventually admitted into HKU’s translation programme – a seemingly logical choice building on her interest in languages – but transferred out only after a year.

“I thought I fared considerably well in Chinese…seeing as I took Chinese and English literature in secondary school. But during my first year at university, this one book brought me to my knees – I still remember its name,” she says, shuddering at the thought. “There was a course that required us to learn how to explore and appreciate the translated works of some classical Chinese literature. Maoshizhushu (毛詩注疏)… those four Chinese characters are burned into my mind.” This philological book, featuring no punctuation, became her nightmares, “[I] couldn’t make sense of it even after putting the punctuation back,” she notes wryly.

Gladys switched to studying English in her second year. On top of ample opportunities to pursue her beloved English literature, the programme brought her into contact with linguistics, which uses scientific methods to analyse language structure. This marriage of humanistic and scientific training stood her in good stead for her career and academic pursuit in the later parts of her life.

Gladys shared with us two of her favourite reads – Shakespeare’s masterwork Hamlet (left) and American-English poet T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. (Photo:

Her first job out of university was as a secondary school English teacher. Throughout those three years, she often generously gave extra lessons to her students. But there was one thing that bugged her to no end. Some students had an extremely difficult time learning English however diligently she tried to teach them. What went wrong in the course of their English learning? She decided to “go back to school” for answers.

"And thank goodness I did, because I finally arrived at the crux of what language learning is about."

Since mid-1980s, she pursued her doctoral studies in applied linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, investigating second language acquisition in greater detail. Her thesis focused on how Hong Kong students learned English.

To Gladys, linguistics is more than just a science; it’s an art of thinking.

“In the past, when students got stuck, I’d be convinced that it was their own issue. But linguistics calls for an analytic approach; I was trained to appreciate what caused the errors they produced from a linguistic perspective, thus digging out the root of the problem.” Were it not for linguistic training, she muses, she might have remained as the “Miss Tang” who would have given her flummoxed students an earful.

This training in linguistics also enables her to understand why a majority of deaf students are weak in literacy skills. When the educational threshold for entering university is way too high for them to attain, they wind up mostly in low-skilled jobs. This has little to do with their intelligence or capabilities, but the fact that they were stripped of the right to be educated in sign language, arguably one that would have helped develop their communication skills more effectively.

"I used to presume sign language was nothing more than gestures."

CUHK was where Gladys first encountered sign language and the Deaf community. She returned to Hong Kong from the UK in the early 90s, joining the University’s Department of English to further her research in second language acquisition. Looking back, she recalls a conversation with Prof James Woodward, a phonologist from the US whose office was beside hers. “We were chatting one time, and he asked if I thought sign language has a phonological system.” Giving a negative reply at the time, she reasoned that there were no sounds to sign language, let alone phonology, no? “I did presume sign language was nothing more than gestures then,” she explains.

The question lingered in her mind as she volunteered to assist Prof Woodward in documenting the varieties of Hong Kong Sign Language (HKSL). Engaging with the Deaf community and consulting literature on sign linguistics, Gladys realised that sign language is no different from spoken languages in having a rich grammatical system. “It turns out that the ‘silent language’ has phonology!”

These fresh intellectual stimulations and interactions with the Deaf community led her to begin scrutinising the so-called “fate” of Deaf individuals. “How on earth COULD their educational level BE so low despite having a strong sign language foundation?” This soon became her calling in research, fighting for equal rights in educating Deaf people.

Aside from championing sign bilingual education, SLCO-CR is on a mission to promote Deaf culture. They are designing Deaf experiential learning activities in the coming year for hearing individuals to get a taste of the visual world of the Deaf. (Photo: SLCO-CR Facebook page)

Like a second PhD

In the mid-90s, Gladys finally made the shift from research on spoken language to becoming fully invested in sign language research. The watershed was marked by Prof Woodward’s resignation – he was bound for Thailand to help set up a university for the disabled.

“Before saying goodbye, he left ten boxes of HKSL materials in my care.” Deep in thought for days, she made a decision to devote her research efforts to sign language, as she believed the linguistic theories she had learned before would still be applicable to sign language research – after all, sign language is indeed a language. Only then did she start learning it for real, embarking upon a new stage of her research career. “It felt like doing another doctoral degree, the subject was utterly inconceivable!”

How did Gladys learn HKSL? Her initial methods had not exactly yielded the results she had expected. A breakthrough came after hiring the first Deaf staff to assist in her research. Over four years, sitting and working side-by-side with a “native signer” resulted in a reassuring boost to her progress.

“It was Kenny Chu, only 19 years of age back then! Born to a Deaf family, he acquired HKSL, as what linguists would call, his mother tongue. Speaking from a research point of view, that is awesome! For even among the Deaf community, only 1-5% have Deaf parents.” She rejoices in having him on-board as the Centre’s Deaf staff 001.

Kenny Chu (second from left), the first Deaf staff at CUHK’s Centre for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies, which was established in 2003. Gladys calls herself a student of his in sign language. For over 10 years, Chu never stopped learning, aspiring to teach sign language at CUHK one day. (Photo: CUHK)

Changing lives, building futures

The work carried out by Gladys and her team has been life-transforming to countless Deaf individuals, including Kenny, who started out as a grassroots worker. One day, Prof Felix Sze, once a student of Gladys’ and now her colleague, chanced upon Kenny and his sister signing to each other on the street. After learning more about their signing backgrounds, she introduced Kenny to Gladys. Kenny was later hired as a “model” for her HKSL dictionary. Since then, the tall, personable chap has been featured on many papers written by Gladys.

It started out as just a job, but with Gladys’ encouragement, and sometimes “threats”, Kenny began furthering his studies, from a higher diploma to the linguistics programme at CUHK, and now, a master’s degree in the same subject. “He wants to teach sign language at CUHK eventually.” Gladys beams. In the past, Kenny had not been the most confident, always doubting himself in front of the hearing Gladys. “So I told him, I might be the linguist, but when it comes to sign language, ‘YOU are my boss’!”

Kenny’s colleague Brenda Yu, also born to a Deaf family, has been instructing sign language at CSLDS for a decade. To better her teaching, she started a part-time degree at EdUHK in 2018. With the team’s relentless research and campaigning, both CUHK and EduHK have begun accepting Deaf students and supporting them with sign interpretation. Gladys commended the quantum leap, envisioning that more institutions would soon follow suit.

⯆ Brenda (left) works at CUHK while doing an undergraduate degree at EdUHK. Last year, she and a friend introduced the names of MTR stations in HKSL through a series of videos, which amassed traction online. (Brenda Yu & 糖糖’s Facebook)

Restoring the standing of sign language

Gladys believes that education CAN reshape one’s fate. Lamentably, sign language education had been given minimal weight in the past; deaf children were prescribed with hearing aids and told to master lip-reading. This did little to help, if not, even creating for them new forms of barriers. Getting a university education and rewriting their destinies was certainly out of the question, “Even now, some educators for the deaf remain under the impression that deaf students should just learn manual skills like manicuring after graduating secondary school. In fact, they can learn and achieve so much more than that.”

For over a century, the linguistic status of sign language has been denigrated globally and only recently, was it reinstated. In 1880, the Milan International Congress on the Education of the Deaf put forward a ban on using sign language to educate deaf students, robbing the Deaf community of their rights to receive education through sign language as well as to become Deaf teachers. The Congress did not revoke its “no sign language” guidelines until 2010, when it apologised publicly to the Deaf community worldwide about their misconception.

The hard-won triumph owes much to the past decades of sign linguistics research. In 2003, Gladys and her team had already been calling for a sign bilingual education approach. Sign language is transmitted in the visual modality and articulated by bodily motion whereas oral language relies on the auditory modality and speech organs. Although their grammars are different, recent research has already shown that they can be acquired simultaneously, and learning sign language leads to stronger activation of certain parts of the brain. No wonder parents flocked to SLCO-CR’s sign bilingual classes with their kids. Working with five other baby crèches, the social enterprise has given signing classes to over 700 hearing toddlers to date.

SLCO-CR often develops new services and products to liven up sign language learning. (Photo: SLCO-CR Facebook page)

"Is that for life? Is there no other way?"

On her path of developing a new model of educating deaf students, Gladys is accompanied by a group of dedicated Deaf colleagues and hearing students, as well as colleague Chris Yiu, who had worked for 20 years in the Education Bureau to support deaf students in mainstream schools. He joined Gladys’ team in 2007 and is also a director of SLCO-CR.

Why quit such a sought-after job? Wringing his hands, he deplored woefully, “We had done everything we could – made seating arrangements, adjusted the teaching design, provided hearing aids and later, even cochlear implants…The technical support was all in place, but it failed to account for the many (deaf) children still grappling with severe difficulty in communication and literacy development. Their life couldn’t be just like that! Was there no other way?” This threw doubt about the oralist, integrated education.

Course after course he took – psychology, education, audiology, counselling – but the puzzle persisted. It was then he came across sign linguistics. “While the oral language abilities of some deaf children are below par, we have found optimal development in their Chinese and English language as well as cognitive and social skills, when they are supported by sign language! After all these years, I am finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” he says, delightedly.

Thanks to the team’s active lobbying, sign bilingual education is now being offered across designated schools, from kindergartens up to secondary schools, bringing over 100 deaf children and 1,000 hearing peers together in an inclusive learning environment.

Chris Yiu had served the Audiological Services Section of the Education Bureau for 20 years before becoming involved in the Sign Bilingualism and Co-enrolment in Deaf Education Programme at CSLDS, CUHK. He holds a memento of the first batch of SLCO kindergarten graduates from the class of 2007. (Photo: SoCUBE)

Drawing our interview to a close, Gladys, a devout Catholic, brims with gratitude while summing up her academic career thus far: “In retrospect, studying linguistics has been a true blessing, without which I would never have understood the importance of being humanistic as a teacher. As a researcher, in the face of the government and society’s ignorance and prejudiced treatment of the Deaf and of sign language, I became aware of how my work could be utilised to create changes to benefit the marginalised.”

SLCO Community Resources at a glimpse

Founding year: 2016
Founding team: Prof Gladys Tang and Mr Chris Yiu
Members: Deaf and hearing sign bilingual instructors, sign interpreters, special education teachers, etc.
Mission: To develop and provide self-sustainable community services and social ventures based on linguistics research and experience in frontline services, promoting sign bilingualism in communication, education and social inclusion, creating a diversified community without communication barriers
1. “Fun with Sign and Speech” – Early sign bilingual development programme
2. Professional sign language learning activities and classes
3. Deaf awareness workshops
4. Sign interpretation and communication support
Product: “Learn with Sign and Speech” Sign Bilingual Vocabulary Learning Package
Contact: | Website:

Deaf Gain | Scholarly keyword

(Photo: SoCUBE)

A lack of understanding spawns misunderstanding. Think calling the deaf “hearing impaired” oozes respect? Not quite, according to a sharing on deaf awareness by CUHK CSLDS this early March. The Deaf is exactly the best way to call them. It means you recognise their identity, unique language and culture.

Some scholars even suggested to see deafness not as a “loss of hearing” or handicap, but a “gain” in another sensory and cognitive capability. The deaf usually has greater vision than the hearing, more sensitive to the human face, expressions, colours and light. May we all learn to embrace our diverse world!

By Kary Wong@ORKTS
English translation by Cathy Wong@ORKTS
(Credits to Gladys and her team’s top-tier edits)