At Alipur, Karnataka, use of village sign language helps build spirit of inclusion
Alipur, a village near Bengaluru, has a large deaf population. The relative isolation of the village and the presence of a sizeable deaf community had led to the emergence of its own sign language called Alipur Sign Language. The language has been partly documented thanks to the efforts of sign linguistics expert Sibaji Panda.
Many deaf children in Indian deaf communities’ face communication barriers. Over 90% are born to hearing parents, and learning a language, either signed, spoken or written is delayed. This means communication with family and other community members who do not use sign language is difficult.
This makes the story of Alipur, a village outside Bengaluru, Karnataka, such a remarkable one. Here, Alipur Sign Language (APSL) is spoken by all the 20,000 plus residents, deaf and hearing. APSL is used in all spheres of village life. The access to sign language is easy and this means deaf people learn APSL at an early age. This is the case even when the child’s parents are hearing and do not sign fluently.
The impact of this on deaf children is significant as they show age‐appropriate pattern of language use and linguistic skills, on par with hearing children using a spoken language. Sign linguistics expert Sibaji Panda has documented this for the endangered languages archive of SOAS, University of London.
Positive impact of early sign language learning
“While doing Sign Language research in Netherlands, a Village sign language workshop was organised where I saw the unique features of this type of sign language”, says Panda. In 2007, he visited Alipur for the first time. “I was able to secure some grant for documentation and later a Euro-Babel project which enabled me to document part of the sign language. It took almost 3 years”.
Like Alipur, there are many areas in the world with unique signing systems, like Martha’s Vineyard in the United States and Kata Kolok in Bali. “I have come across a large family in Kerala where they use a sign language different than Indian Sign Language”, adds Panda.
In the case of Alipur, generations of consanguineous marriages are said to have led to a predominantly large deaf population. The village is home to a tightly knit Shia community that traces its origins to Iran. The community is particular about marrying within. Alcohol and tobacco usage is prohibited and the village has its own governance system.
Alipur’s history is maintained in the village records. Mir Fazil Raza, a village member says, “The residents of Alipur have developed a common tradition and habit to arrange marriages of their children to local blood relatives. This has resulted in a great many disabled people here, and most of them are hearing impaired”.
The use of sign language has led to different social patterns in Alipur. Whereas deaf communities in other parts of India tend to socialise apart from hearing communities, the shared use of sign language in Alipur has led to greater engagement between hearing and deaf villagers. The social isolation is considerably less, and deafness is less stigmatised.
lower social isolation, stigma
Over the years however with more villagers seeking job opportunities elsewhere, APSL has lost some of its unique qualities. This points to the need to protect and preserve village sign languages, says Panda.
“The villagers are now in more contact with towns and cities and have mixed signs from Indian Sign Language and Bangalore variety of American Sign Language. This is natural but also part of the endangerment process. The younger generation have started signing a variety mixed with signs from outside or social media while the older generation continue with the original Alipur Sign Language. – Sibaji Panda, Sign linguistics expert
Greater support needed
To ensure the quality of APSL was preserved, Panda organised many community awareness programmes. A deaf school was revived to provide education in APSL. The challenge however is to find a teacher from the village.
Panda hopes that the school will be supported by the government under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. This will enable deaf children to get primary education in their own sign language. “This has been clearly reflected in the National Education Policy 2020 as well”.
It’s not like things in Alipur are picture book perfect. Marriage customs for instance do discriminate against deaf villagers and there are reservations about deaf people marrying each other as there’s a mistaken impression that this will spread deafness further. However, Alipur still stands apart from many other regions in India in the fact that it has stayed united and largely inclusive due to the shared usage of sign language.
Watch in Sign Language
- ‘Wish there was a specific National Education Policy for Deaf people’. – Guest Column by Sibaji Panda
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