A new dictionary aims to raise awareness about the complexities
of sign language and how it is used.
IMAGINE if you were told that your mother tongue is not a “real” language, but merely a shadow of one. This is what many deaf communities face when it comes to sign language.
According to the World Federation of the Deaf, some 70 million deaf people around the world say that sign language is their first language.
Despite this, the common misconception is that sign language is a crude imitation or ‘inferior’ to spoken languages such as English.
“Sign language is a visual language, which is actually equal to any spoken languages because this visual language has its own grammar, structure and meaning,” says advocate for the deaf, Anthony Chong.
“Many people misunderstand that sign language represents spoken language because hearing people (and even deaf people) see signs based on Bahasa Malaysia or English words.”
Chong, who is deaf himself, has a background in both linguistics as well as deaf studies.
Some think that sign language is just a collection of simple iconic gestures, and hence should be easy and universal. However, as sign language naturally developed within deaf communities and was not artificially handed down to them, different countries and even regions have their own distinct sign language.
For example, studies show that only 30% of the signs in American Sign Language and British Sign Language are similar. In Malaysia, the language used by the deaf community is Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia (BIM or Malaysian Sign Language). Even sign representations of letters (or fingerspelling) in the written Roman alphabet may vary depending on where you are from.
For instance, a BIM user may easily understand fingerspelling in the United States or Germany, but he will be at a loss in countries such as England or Sweden.
The basic characteristics of sign language are handshape (the way the hand and fingers form a sign); location (of the hand); orientation (of the palm); and movement.
Ainun Rozana at the launch of the dictionary.
The way these characteristics are combined, coupled with facial expressions and body positions, lay the groundwork for complex linguistic rules.
For example, there are two separate signs to describe “delicious” and “no”; but instead of using two signs to say “not delicious”, a proficient BIM user can say this with just one sign, thanks to the internal rules that govern sign language.
Despite their richness, some are still reluctant to recognise sign languages as legitimate languages – something sign language linguistics expert Ho Koon Wei says is caused by a simple lack of awareness.
In a previous interview with The Star, Ho shared that even her own parents were initially not too pleased when she picked up sign language.
Persuading her to communicate through spoken languages, Ho’s parents also forbade her four brothers from communicating with her through sign language.
Despite this, Ho’s youngest brother was keen to learn sign language, and the two would secretly sign to each other at home.
“He still sometimes interprets for me, especially during family reunions,” says Ho, in an email interview conducted for this article. “Later on, his wife also learned sign language, and both of them sign with me whenever they can.
“I think my mother later wanted to communicate directly with me, so she started to learn as well.”
Currently, BIM is only recognised as “the official sign language for the deaf in Malaysia” under the Persons with Disabilities Act 2008.
The need to address this lack of understanding and information about BIM was among the main reasons behind the BIM-English-Malay Handshape Dictionary recently launched by Universiti Malaya (UM)
The dictionary is a collaborative effort between the university’s Faculty of Language and Linguistics and experts from the deaf community.
After surveys and preliminary studies on the deaf community were carried out by Ho and several other deaf experts, the team decided in 2009 to produce a dictionary. The UM research team is currently led by lecturer Ainun Rozana Ainun Mohd Zaid. Ainun Rozana says that the 1,000 copies of the dictionary produced in its first print will not be for sale.
“Instead, we want to distribute them to schools serving deaf children, higher education institutions as well as organisations for the deaf,” she explains.
Chong, who was responsible for the construction of the dictionary’s BIM sentences, says this project is different from sign language books published in the country so far. “(Readers) can refer to the dictionary based on sign characteristics, such as handshape, palm orientation, locations and movement.
“I also proposed that there should not be just literal translations for each sign; one sign can have more than one meaning,” he says, adding that he hopes to incorporate more signs in future editions of the dictionary.
Meanwhile, sign language interpreter and educator Lucy Lim helped secure a RM105,000 grant from the SP Setia Foundation to fund the research and publication of the dictionary.
Lim, who has been an advocate for the deaf for some 27 years, says she sees the dictionary as a small step towards the recognition of BIM.
Lim (left) and Ho want to raise awareness about sign language.
“I wanted to ensure that we have adequate resources to enable not only the deaf to strive in their education, but provide our educators with a solid background on the grammar and structure of BIM to enable them to teach our deaf students effectively.
“I wanted the work of talented and skilled deaf experts to be highlighted through this dictionary,” she says.
The development of sign language in Malaysia
It is believed that formal education for deaf and hearing impaired children in Malaysia started in 1954, with the setting up of The Federation School for the Deaf in Penang.
The school’s patron was Lady Templar, the wife of Sir Gerald Templar who was the British High Commissioner of Malaya then.
Teaching at this school was rooted in oralisme, a concept that pushes for the deaf to be taught to speak and lip-read.
Despite this, students developed their own language to communicate with each other in daily life, using a mix of existing sign languages in the community as well as signs they had previously used at home.
In the 1970s, educators moved away from oralisme in favour of “total communication”, which encompasses any technique available to help children acquire language – from formal sign to finger-spelling to speech-reading and writing.
It was during this period when several hundreds of signs from American Sign Language (ASL) were “imported” and formally taught in schools.
The following decade saw the development of Kod Tangan Bahasa Malaysia (KTBM or Manually Coded Bahasa Malaysia), created for the purposes of classroom learning.
Rather than a language in itself, KTBM is a code specifically to learn Bahasa Malaysia – much like how Morse Code represents spoken language.
Although KTBM used borrowed signs from both ASL and BIM, it also had an indirect impact on the evolution of BIM as we know it today.