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.

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