As I had the chance of working with Deaf people in a dance-drama production in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I thought I would particularly focus this blog on their language-related issues.
Hall et al (2011, p.52) discuss key populations that may require the services of applied linguists. These populations are referred to as ‘clients’ as they are the ‘users and the beneficiaries’ of the theories and practices of applied linguistics.
These clients have various needs related to language. Some of the underlying factors of their needs can be biological, social, professional or a mixture of two or all. In order to provide appropriate language related services to the clients, the authors have categorised them based on their language-related issues.
They mention the problem of labelling groups of people, as some have preferences for specific labels over other labels and so forth. For example, when I was doing a diploma in teaching children with specific learning disabilities, the course facilitators insisted that I use the term ‘children diagnosed with dyslexia’ rather than using the term ‘dyslexic children’ in my vocabulary. The reason was that these children should be treated as children first in spite of their learning disability.
Likewise, the authors mention a controversy around the naming of deaf people: ‘deaf’ with the lower case ‘d’ defines deafness as a pathological condition whereas ‘Deaf’ with the upper case ‘D’ means an identity, a community which may or may not include ‘deaf’ people.
Two concepts that caught my attention while doing background reading were bimodal and unimodal bilingualism. As defined by Woll and Spence (2011, p.359), unimodal bilingualism is when two spoken or two sign languages are used, whereas in bimodal bilingualism two languages are used but in different modalities: one signed and one written/spoken.
Woll and Sutton-Spence cite Emmorey et al. (2011, p. 364) who mention the ‘code blending’ phenomenon in hearing people with deaf parents. These people are bimodal bilinguals: they can speak and sign simultaneously. This cannot be done in unimodal bilingualism. If a teacher is a bimodal bilingual in the sign language of the learner and in the additional language he/she wants to learn, code blending would be a useful teaching method.
Further, I would like to mention my ignorance until very recently to think that if a deaf person can sign in Sri Lankan sign language (a language recognised by the national government in 2010), he/she will be able to read/write in Sinhala. Indeed, I have been one of the many illogical people to come to such a conclusion, mainly due to the unawareness that sign languages are unrelated to spoken languages and are as rich, complex and varied as any oral language.
The process of learning Sinhala or Tamil language by a Sri Lankan signing deaf person is similar to the process of learning English by a Sinhala (or Tamil) speaking child with perfect hearing, isn’t it?
This is an instance where the services of applied linguists are needed to remove the prejudices and ignorance of people with regard to deaf communication. At this point, it seems to me that this kind of work of applied linguists falls under Critical Applied Linguistics as it is concerned with ‘social change and action’ as per Cook (2006, p.76).
Thus, as a student of applied linguistics I begin to realize the wide scope of work in which I can be involved as a language professional and an applied linguist.
Internet resources for learners of Sri Lankan sign language include a dictionary of 350 common signs featured on this school website, this interactive, multimedia website for students, parents and teachers, and videos on the SLSLTA YouTube channel, such as this one demonstrating colours:
Cook, G. (2003). Applied linguistics. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Hall, C. J., Smith, P. H. and Wicaksono, R. (2011) Mapping applied linguistics: a guide for students and practitioners. London, Routledge.
Woll, B., Sutton-Spence, R. (2011) Sign languages. In: Simpson, J. ed. The Routledge handbook of applied linguistics. Milton Park, Abingdon, [UK], Routledge, pp.359-369.