On International Day of Sign Languages
By M Ahmad
LANGUAGE is the ability to acquire and use complex systems of communication. It is thought to have originated when early humans started gradually changing their early communication systems. The structures of language have evolved to serve specific communicative and social functions. Language is not the creation of one person or of one period but it is an institution, on which hundreds of generations and countless individuals have worked on. Language is thought to have originated 10,000 BC. Language is a vital part of human connection. Although all species have their ways of communicating, humans are the only ones that have mastered cognitive language communication. Language allows us to share our ideas, thoughts, and feelings with others. It has the power to build societies, but also tear them down. Language is any formal system of gestures, signs, sounds, and symbols used or conceived as a means of communicating thought. There are over six thousand language schemes currently in use around the world. The language spoken by the greatest number of people on the planet is Mandarin; other widely spoken languages are English, Spanish, and Arabic.
Language is what makes us human. It is how people communicate. By learning a language, it means you have mastered a complex system of words, structure, and grammar to effectively communicate with others. Language helps us express our feelings and thoughts — this is unique to our species because it is a way to express unique ideas and customs within different cultures and societies. Our language is the most important part of our being. It’s important to learn other languages besides our own because it helps us to learn about other peoples and cultures but the most important one that we can learn is our own mother tongue as this is one of the most basic parts of our identity. The act of communicating with our hands has always preceded formal language. When we’re babies and children, we point and grab to communicate what we want. We’ll shake our heads and turn away to signal when we don’t want something. In other words, we all use a version of sign language to communicate before we know how to speak.
Hearing loss is the most common sensory deficit in humans today. As per WHO estimates in India, there are approximately 63 million people, who are suffering from Significant Auditory Impairment; this places the estimated prevalence at 6.3% in Indian population. As per NSSO survey, currently there are 300 persons per one lakh population who are suffering from severe to profound hearing loss and of these, a large percentage is children between the ages of 0 to 14 years. With such a large number of hearing impaired young Indians, it amounts to a severe loss of productivity, both physical and economic. An even larger percentage of our population suffers from milder degrees of hearing loss and unilateral (one sided) hearing loss. Everything from mild hearing loss to complete deafness occurs, and the communication skills needed will depend on the person and the severity of their condition. For mild hearing loss, it may simply be a case of ensuring that you enunciate clearly and slow down your speech slightly to achieve clarity and understanding. With more severe deafness, lip reading and sign language are primary communication tools.
For someone who maintains the condition of deafness and can’t hear sound, the use of auditory language to exchange information is a no-way. A large number of the population is disconnected from the mainstream hearing-dominated society and lie at the risk of being marginalised, because people who are limited to using only speech can’t communicate with them. A lack of accessibility to support the conversation between both communities also adds to the problem. Because of this, a huge challenge in the form of a communication gap between D/deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing people arises. To bridge this gap, a non-verbal language known as sign language exists. Every language, whether verbal or non-verbal, has its own elements and functions and differs from each other in how they are used. Even though sign language is another means of communication and also has every basic feature of language, it is still different from spoken language in many ways.
Sign language is defined as a way to communicate using hand gestures and symbols for words or letters of the alphabet, often used by those who are hard-of-hearing. An example of sign language is the means of communicating used by Helen Keller Sign language, any means of communication through bodily movements, especially of the hands and arms, used when spoken communication is impossible or not desirable. The Practice is probably older than speech. Sign language may be as coarsely expressed as mere grimaces, shrugs, or pointings; or it may employ a delicately nuanced combination of coded manual signals reinforced by facial expression and perhaps augmented by words spelled out in a manual alphabet. Wherever vocal communication is impossible, as between speakers of mutually unintelligible languages or when one or more would-be communicators is deaf, sign language can be used to bridge the gap. Sign language is manual communication commonly used by people who are deaf. Sign language is not universal; people who are deaf from different countries speak different sign languages. The gestures or symbols in sign language are organized in a linguistic way. Each individual gesture is called a sign.
The question of who invented sign language has sparked much debate and has a vague answer. One of the earliest written references to a sign language is from the fifth century BC, in Plato’s Cratylus, where Socrates says: “If we hadn’t a voice or a tongue, and wanted to express things to one another, wouldn’t we try to make signs by moving our hands, head, and the rest of our body, just as dumb people do at present. The first person credited with the creation of a formal sign language for the hearing impaired was Pedro Ponce de León, a 16th-century Spanish Benedictine monk. His idea to use sign language was not a completely new idea. In the 1800s, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet developed American Sign Language (ASL). Inspired by a desire to help his neighbour’s deaf daughter, Gallaudet went to Europe to meet with Laurent Clerc, a deaf instructor of sign language. In the 1800s, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet developed American Sign Language (ASL). Inspired by a desire to help his neighbour’s deaf daughter, Gallaudet went to Europe to meet with Laurent Clerc, a deaf instructor of sign language. Together they founded the first American school for the deaf and established a sign language unique to the USA. It was inspired by the French Sign Language, signs from Martha’s Vineyard and might have been inspired by the signing system of the Great Plains Native Americans. American Sign Language (ASL) is a complete, natural language that has the same linguistic properties as spoken languages, with grammar that differs from English.
ASL is expressed by movements of the hands and face. It is the primary language of many North Americans who are deaf and hard of hearing and is used by some hearing people as well. Indian Sign Language (ISL) is used in the deaf community all over India. But ISL is not used in deaf schools to teach deaf children. Teacher training programs do not orient teachers towards teaching methods that use ISL. There is no teaching material that incorporates sign language. It was Sibaji Panda, a deaf teacher, who created and introduced the first-ever formal training course in ISL at the Ali Yavar Jung National Institute of Speech and Hearing Disabilities (AYJNISHD), in 2001
The Internet now allows deaf people to talk via a video link, either with a special-purpose videophone designed for use with sign language or with “off-the-shelf” video services designed for use with broadband and an ordinary computer webcam. The special videophones that are designed for sign language communication may provide better quality than ‘off-the-shelf’ services and may use data compression methods specifically designed to maximize the intelligibility of sign languages. Some advanced equipment enables a person to remotely control the other person’s video camera, in order to zoom in and out or to point the camera better to understand the signing.
The UN General Assembly has proclaimed 23 September as the International Day of Sign Languages in order to raise awareness of the importance of sign language in the full realization of the human rights of people who are deaf. It is a unique opportunity to support and protect the linguistic identity and cultural diversity of all deaf people and other sign language users. During the 2022 celebration of the International Day of Sign Languages, the world will once again highlight the unity generated by our sign languages. Deaf communities, governments and civil society organisations maintain their collective efforts – hand in hand – in fostering, promoting and recognising national sign languages as part of their countries’ vibrant and diverse linguistic landscapes.
Indian Sign language (ISL) is set to receive a boost as an Indian sign language dictionary of 10,000 words was recently released by PM Modi. “The Dictionary along with NCERT textbooks in ISL accessible teaching-learning resources will benefit special needs students, their teachers, parents and even the general population who would like to learn a new language like ISL. These resources will also promote the use of Indian Sign Language across the country, and thereby give an impetus to inclusive education. Also academicians and the community of people associated with the education of hearing and speech impaired have expressed happiness over standardisation of the Indian Sign Language (ISL), a move advocated in the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020.
- Writer M Ahmad, former Incharge Abhedananda Home-Higher Sec Institution for Specially-abled (Deaf & Mute) Children, Srinagar and is a regular writer for this newspaper and can be reached at [email protected]
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