‘Wish there was a specific National Education Policy for Deaf people’. – Guest Column by Sibaji Panda
Well known Deaf leader, Sibaji Panda is the founder of Happy Hands School for the Deaf in Odisha, a centre for deaf people run by deaf people. In the column, he shares his concerns about the move to officially standardise Indian Sign Language under the National Education Policy 2020.
The Deaf community in India is already together, and deaf people are moving around the country like anyone else. Never ever has the issue of language diversity compelled any Deaf individual to not go somewhere to study, work or to live.
The problem is not with mobility or with being empowered by a powerful common language. The problem is somewhere else. For around two decades I have come across several attempts in this regard with both sign language users and non-sign language users demanding a common Indian sign language (ISL).
Wanting this is okay but in practice it has always gone wrong, wasting a lot of time and resources. We do not have proper research on the variation and diversity of ISL in India. Nor a data corpus to understand it. Empowering a language user community does not require a common sign language and I am sure the Deaf community is proud of the diversity of ISL.
ISL to be standardised under NEP 2020
Since independence India has marched ahead in every field. But where are the Deaf? Primary and pre-primary education is inaccessible, and the approach followed does not fit most kids. Most deaf adults’ clear high school by mugging. We do not even have a proper higher secondary school to study in, nor a place to graduate from at par with our hearing peers.
Therefore, we have never ever demanded that sign language be standardised. Many institutions have tried to teach sign language to teachers, but the results are not encouraging. So far, the opportunities created are for the lucky few teachers who spend their lives drawing a salary but do not deliver a single class which is understood by the children. I do not see a problem with any common sign language issue here.
Where deaf teachers are employed, children are happy learning because it is accessible and enjoyable. Besides education, there are other areas like intensive research on ISL, promotion of its use, and other language planning strategies to worry about. Not a common ISL. For that matter, not many spoken languages have a standard variety either.
Standardising sign language in India is complex
We have been the subject of experimentation, victim of many new approaches, and lost most of our valuable time doing what the therapists thinks is right, doing what doctors say, and repeating after teachers. Do we not have a say on how we want to be taught? What language we prefer? What kind of teachers we favour? These questions are still unexplored, and we continue to be subject to the colonial mindset of rehabilitation professionals. What is funny is that almost all of us end up being something other than what these experts profess to our parents.
The issue around standard sign language affects those with a language learning impairment far more, and these are hearing experts. The only complaint we receive is from the few who do not have good competence in ISL. Then why waste resources on this matter which is not our problem and not connected to our life and empowerment?
The standardisation process is complex and requires serious involvement of users and continuous maintenance. However, the deaf community does not have the motivation to use sign language artificially imposed on them. Doing this will complicate matters further and divert our attention to some issue which never was our problem in the first place. For instance there may be a political battle between regional deaf groups over inclusion/exclusion of their signs from standard variety.
Current challenges in deaf education
Now, the pressing need in deaf education is for two things. First, lots and lots of educational materials in ISL, produced by the best available signers and to a standard, both technically and content-wise. Second, training programs for deaf people to become professionals in the area of deaf education. Deaf professionals are the key to resolving deaf education. Whether or not the sign language varieties they use are in any way standardised is of
very secondary importance. Instead, standardisation may happen as a natural by-product when such materials are spread widely. In many spoken languages, standardisation has happened in exactly this way.
Of course, a standard language has many benefits to the user community. In many of our spoken languages there is a standard variety. These standards were not artificially created and not engineered by anyone. Often, they were just selected as they happened to be the language of the elites, or the language of the capital region. Standardising a language in a country like India is far more challenging and complicated than in a small monolingual country. If any artificial effort is implemented this will be a waste of energy and resources. The outcome may even divide the deaf community.
We consider our diversity in culture and language an asset. Pushing for unification may lead to a loss of this beauty and richness. Standardisation is possible in India if the resources are used in education. The academic institutions where sign language is used will act as the hub for language planning and maintenance. This will be possible if the user community is willing to accept it, which I doubt. Even after any unification the regional variations will remain, as language can’t be engineered and is bound to change.
Diversity of language at risk
The main issue is whether any variety that might be a candidate for becoming a standard ISL has deaf people using it in a way that is attractive for other deaf people to adopt. This could happen if a group of deaf professionals create a lot of excellent ISL video materials, which are easily accessible to all ISL users. Many people in the ISL community may watch such materials and start using this ISL variety with people from other regions. There is no guarantee that this would happen, as it depends on the language attitudes of ISL users. But this is possible. Bilingual deaf education through sign language, supported by these materials, might create the right environment for ISL to slowly become more standardised over time in a way that is natural and gradual.
Some people think that standardising means deciding somehow on the “best” selection of signs, taking some signs from one region, other signs from other regions, etc, and mixing them together into a new “standard” variety that some representatives or experts decide on. This can never work because such an artificial mix is not anyone’s natural language. Therefore, how could it ever be popularised and spread its use? This approach has been tried unsuccessfully in quite a few countries. In practice, standardisation mostly happens when one dialect becomes more prestigious than others, for reasons social and political, and not linguistic. This is inherently unfair to other varieties that then end up as non-standard. Debating which ISL variety should become standard will needlessly create conflict and division in the ISL-using community.
The engineering of standardisation is only possible in small language communities with strong institutions that can systematically spread the new standard. In India, where the deaf community is vast and diverse and educational institutions are weak, engineering standardisation is not possible. It is much better to let standardisation happen naturally, as a by-product of excellent ISL content being available to large numbers of sign language users.
Since there is no problem within the user community, standardisation plans should not even be discussed for ISL. If the hearing users who picked up a few signs by chance have trouble with variation, they may further educate themselves. This issue has now taken a political direction. The National Education Policy has mentioned it and the Prime Minister has tweeted it, therefore no one can stop it from happening. I wish there was a specific NEP for Deaf people instead of the mainstream one. NEP 2020 will deal with thousands of issues in education reform. Deaf education reform should have found a place there instead of something unnecessary and undesirable.
Watch in Sign Language
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