Introducing a New Language of Touch

Protactile is an emerging language among the DeafBlind.

Jun 9, 2022
Introducing a New Language of Touch | Protactile is an emerging language among the DeafBlind.

Languages tend to develop slowly. The evolution of one language into another can take hundreds or even thousands of years. But in just a few years a DeafBlind community in the Pacific Northwest has created a language of their own that is  based on touch. 

Until recently being DeafBlind meant that you often lived in isolation,according to the Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPR). Though many DeafBlind people can communicate using American Sign Language (ASL), it was not reciprocal. ASL is a language that is based on sight- with a lot of the nuances.

A Solution Based on Touch
The solution, until now, was for DeafBlind people to have other people sign into their hands- so they could “read” ASL. But again, this method of communication was only semi-successful. There was a lot that was getting lost in translation. 

Protactile came into existence about 15 years ago, when Jelica Nuccio became the director of the DeafBlind Service Center in Seattle, Washington. Until then members of the center would communicate with each other through interpreters. But Nuccio began to encourage her fellow community members to communicate with each other directly via touch. 

Nuccio and her colleagues didn’t set out to create a language. It just sort of happened. And once they started to realize that something different was going on they jumped at the opportunity. 

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Once we got in touch we realized that we were happening upon some different communication practices,” Nuccio told OPB; “so we brought in some other DeafBlind people and we started interacting using those communication practices, we got a linguistic anthropologist involved. 

“We basically created a space where everyone is DeafBlind and [used] Protactile and asked: ‘If the world was just full of DeafBlind people there were no hearing or sighted people on the planet  what would we do? How would we do it?’”

A Language and a Dance
Once you think about it it seems intuitive that DeafBlind people would communicate through touch. After all, it is one of our primary senses. As shown in Christian Science Monitor YouTube video, Protactile is a very physical language.

The speakers sit right up against each other, one pair of hands clasped together, the other pair moving rapidly over each other’s bodies. It looks like a dance, but it’s a language. 

In fact, one of the most important aspects of the new language is the ability to react to someone you are in conversation with without having to interrupt their speech; something seeing and hearing people often take for granted. 

In Protactile this is called “backchanneling”. It helps to build a sense of connection between the speaker and the listener, and is a vital part of dissipating the sense of isolation that DeafBlind people so often feel. 

It may be strange to think of a language built on touch, but Protactile is indeed a language. According to an in-depth New Yorker profile, it is even being studied by researchers at the University of Chicago, and is being championed by the DeafBlind, award-winning poet, John Lee Clark. 

Protactile is a testament to human creativity and ingenuity and the innate need for humans to communicate and connect.

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Tiki is a freelance writer, editor, and translator with a passion for writing stories. She believes in taking small actions to positively impact the world. She spends her free time reading, baking, creating art, and walking her rescue dog.