Although sign languages are mainly for deaf people and their families and instructors, being able to communicate in sign languages is a very effective way to empower people in our community. Sign languages are ways of communication that require the visual-manual modality to produce meaning. They are expressed by doing manual articulations in combination with non-manual elements, but it should not be confused with body language, a type of nonverbal communication.
Wherever communities of deaf people exist, sign languages have developed as handy means of communication and they form the core of local deaf cultures. Although signing is used primarily by the deaf and hard of hearing, hearing individuals, such as those unable to speak physically or those with deaf family members, also use it.
Learning an international sign is like learning a foreign language for deaf people. Children who are exposed to a sign language from birth will acquire it; just as hearing children acquire their native spoken language. Language, spoken or signed, is more easily acquired as a child at a young age versus an adult because of the fresh brain of the child. Sign languages do not have a traditional or formal written form. Many deaf people do not see a need to write their own language. On occasion, where the prevalence of deaf people is high enough, a deaf sign language has been taken up an entire local community, forming a village sign language. This happens in small integrated communities. When deaf people constitute a relatively small proportion of the general population, deaf communities often develop.
Sign languages are not universal. Each country, or even each tribe, has its own sign language. They each have their own grammar depending on the geographic and cultural context. In general, each country has its own native sign language, and some have more than one. It is not determined yet how many sign languages currently exist in the world. Some sign languages have obtained a kind of legal recognition while others have no status at all. Nevertheless, there is an international sign that is used mainly at international deaf events such as the Deaflympics and meetings of the World Federation of the Deaf. Each country should have a national federation of deaf people. As an example of international events, the Indian Ocean has its annual Miss Deaf competition. Madagascar was the winner of last year’s competition. In this case, the national federation that selects the competitor is in charge of teaching the national delegates international signs.
I would like to share the situation of deaf communities specifically in Madagascar. Although Madagascar has six provinces, the country uses a unique national sign language. There is the Federation of Deaf People, supported by the State, which tries to promote empowerment in deaf communities in the national level. Each province of the country has its focal point of the federation of deaf people. Learning sign languages became more and more promoted because of NGOs and grassroots associations that work with deaf communities. Unfortunately, most of deaf communities’ empowerment activities are implemented in the capital, and therefore are unavailable to many in the country still. However in terms of inclusivity, the country has always had a sign language interpreter in the national TV channel. Even small changes can be significant. When we think about languages, let’s not forget sign languages and the people who use them.
Photo credit: Tad Philipp / PWBMadagascar