Revisiting Indian Sign Language

Is Sign Language a natural language? If it is a natural language, isn’t it an endangered one? Is orality an essential characteristic of a natural language? Why are we obsessed with ‘phonocentricism’? What’s the nature of linguistic deprivation suffered by deaf children? By denying an opportunity to pursue their studies in Sign Language, are we violating the linguistic human right of the children of the Deaf community of the country? (Mind that, the deaf population in India is 14 million! More than the total of many countries.) What’s its implication in the context of the Right to Education ACT ? These are some of the questions that disturbed me when I listened to Dr. Samar Sinha of Sikkim University talking on “Indian Sign Language: Problems and Prospects” at the Faculty Seminar held at the University yesterday.
Dr Samar Sinha teaches Linguistics at Sikkim University. His Ph.D. thesis ‘A Grammar of Indian Sign Language’, a pioneer work on Indian Sign Language, is a detailed grammatical study of Indian Sign Language and Indian Deaf Community. His research on Indian Sign Language has contributed significantly to our understanding of natural human language in general and Indian Sign Language in particular, and towards the empowerment of Deaf community in India.
Dr Sinha was very straightforward in asserting that the cumulative philosophical, historical, social discrimination has resulted in the suppression of Indian Sign Language and this has resulted in further violation of their right to education through mother tongue, a violation of linguistic and human rights.
Shabda Brahma. The theory of vibration through letters and their utterances often conditions our notion of language and we often find it difficult to think of a natural language without orality. But is orality a must? Why is speech so fundamental, why is it so sacred? “The traditional definition of language considers Sign Language as a language surrogate lacking the syntactic, morphological and phonological properties of natural language”. Dr Sinha opined during his presentation and pointed out the unique structure of Indian Sign Language. Some of his observations are worth quoting: (a) Indian Sign Language is an SOV language with asymmetry between embedded and matrix clauses in the information –neutral word order, (b) Wh-phrase is always clause final, (c) the facial expression, torso, tempo, contour, size and other dynamic parameters are used to convey various grammatical information.
The contemporary discourse on deafness needs a paradigm shift, linguistically, academically and socially. Like racism and sexism, audism , the notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear or behave in the manner of one who hears, should be banned. Children using the Sign Language (+sign) are equal to the children using non-sign Languages (-sign) , the only difference is the absence or presence (+ or -) of orality.

The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachers

Oxford University Press

The importance of content rich texts to learners and teachers Texts have always played an integral part in classroom learning, for skills development and as contexts for language study. It has long been acknowledged that choosing texts that are interesting and motivating is key, but we also need to ensure rich and meaningful content. Katie Wood, teacher trainer and materials writer, suggests using four key questions to assess whether a text meets these criteria and discusses why it should.

Question 1: Does the text contain information that can be of use in the real world outside the classroom?

In today’s fast-moving and increasingly digital world students are less likely than ever before to read or listen to something solely because it’s good for them, or because it contains examples of a particular structure. They are likely to want to know which specific skills they’re working on, but also what information they can take from the text and make use of…

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The narrative of textbook writing in India: Is it too taxing?

“What’s a textbook?” asked the little child. “Isn’t it just another story book?” “No, my child, it’s not. It’s something more than that. It’s not for your enjoyment, it’s for your empowerment as per our definition of your empowerment” This little conversation with a little child burdened by numerous textbooks prompted me to look at the business of textbook writing commissioned by different Boards and textbook publication corporations of different States of India.
Almost all the States of India have Textbook Publishing Corporations headed by a Managing Director belonging to the Indian Administrative Service. The State Council of Educational Research and Training forms a Textbook Development Coordination Committee and a Textbook Development Committee with subject experts and members. State Project Directors of SSA or RMSA, Directors of SCERTs and Directors of Elementary or Secondary Education will be the members of the all powerful Textbook Development Coordination Committee. The subject experts of the Textbook Development Committee will be drawn from all the four corners of the country. To cite an example, the subject experts for Radiance, the English textbook for class VIII developed by SCERT, Bihar had four subject experts, one from Delhi, one from Shillong, one from Baroda and one from Jehanabad.

The textbooks prepared by the Textbook Development Committees are generally approved by a Committee comprising eminent educationists. To cite a specific example, the English textbook for class VII prepared by Madhya Pradesh Rajya Shilsha Kendra, Bhopal was approved by a galaxy of educationists. A former Vice Chancellor of Rani Durgawati Vishwavidyalaya, Jabalpur, an Assistant General Manager of IDBI, Bhopal, a former Deputy Chairman of MP Sanskrit Board, Bhopal, the Head of the Department of Hindi of Shri Satya Sai Women’s College, Bhopal, Commissioner, Rajya Shiksha Kendra, Bhopal were some of the members of the said Standing Committee. So many high profile educationists for approving the English textbook for class VII of  a State! The stories are almost the same in all the States.
When we look at the narrative of the Govt. sponsored textbook writing, we are impressed by the elaborate arrangement done by various Governments for the preparation of quality textbooks in their respective States. But, ironically, the life span of these textbooks is rather too short. New textbooks replace the old ones at regular intervals. New Committees are formed, new experts are invited and the tradition goes on……
A textbook is not simply a useful and efficient device for teaching and learning a subject, it is the culmination of an academic enterprise aimed at achieving a predetermined goal. The nature and the scope of this goal, the techniques used to achieve this goal and the philosophy underlying this goal are often contentious and problematic. The narrative of textbook writing is fraught with unpredictable consequences. Those who are involved in the process of textbook writing will surely agree with me if I say that a textbook is a nightmare for a textbook writer and it is nothing but an enigma for the teachers and the learners. The apparently innocuous book used in the formal school system to teach a particular subject is a cause for heart burn for all the stakeholders, the curriculum designer, the teachers, the students, the administrators, the policy makers and the guardians. Academic acrimony and political ideology often vitiate the planning and the preparation stages of a textbook and anyone involved in the planning and the production of a textbook is often at a loss to extricate himself or herself from the whirlpool of pedagogical contradictions and political compulsions. The predicament confronting a poor textbook writer is often unfathomable and unbelievable, and it is indeed a herculean task to overcome the hurdles that make textbook writing a challenging task.
Textbooks offer organized and convenient sequences of ideas and information for structured teaching and learning. It is contrived and camouflaged, authoritative and arbitrary.
Who selects the materials for a language textbook? The textbook writers or someone pulling the string from behind? As per the language experts, the validity of any materials meant for a language textbook should have psychological validity, pedagogical validity and process and content validity.( Rubdy,R. Selection of Materials published in Tomlinson, B.(ed). Developing Materials for Language Teaching, 2003). But when you are told that your textbook must have a lesson on this theme or that theme, your academic liberty as a textbook writer is curtailed. You prepare lessons as per your master’s voice. The end result? A boring language textbook which the learners would love to hate.
Give your child a textbook and see if she exclaims, “What a lovely textbook! I enjoy reading it. It’s like my favorite story book!”