It's Time To Speak The Silent Language

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Although South Africa has made advancements when it comes to Sign Language and the Deaf Community, there is still a long way to go, seeing that sign language has officially been recognized and will soon be the country's twelfth official language.



South African Sign Language (SASL) is set to become South Africa’s twelfth official language, as announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa. 

On 20 May, 2022, the Department Of Basic Education (DBE) announced in their adjusted budget vote speech for the 2022/23 financial year, that it will incorporate Sign Language as an optional subject to be taught in South Africa’s school curriculum. 

At the time of the 2012 South African Census, almost 400 000 citizens who use SASL as their mother language were counted. 

Sign Language is a visual language, whereas the 11 official languages are all spoken languages. It is a naturally occurring language which develops as a result of the need to communicate amongst members of Deaf communities, produced using the hand, face, head and upper torso and is processed by the eyes.

As the most commonly used language in South Africa, complete with its own grammar, vocabulary and syntax, just like any other language, it can communicate a potentially limitless number of ideas.

It is hoped that the decision to recognize SASL as our county’s twelfth official language will open new doors for the Deaf community, in terms of accessing basic rights and inclusivity, as there are still barriers the community faces. 

Lynette Victor, Andries van Niekerk and Dirkie Ebersohn (working at South Africa’s National Institute for the Deaf as the Sign Language Centre Manager, SASL Linguist and SASL Content Development Manager, respectively), say the recognition and introduction of SASL into our school’s curriculum will raise the language’s status, and can encourage the understanding that Sign Language is “of comparable status to spoken languages.”

“Deaf people will be able to have access to information wherever legislation requires that it be available in all official languages. Certainly, the driver's licence test will need to be available in SASL and will solidify our government's commitment to equal access. Provinces and government departments are still able to pick any three official languages to be used in their official proceedings, so this will not be a solution to a Deaf person not having communication access at a clinic; but this will hopefully be a significant step forward in creating the resources necessary to provide accessible services,” say Victor, van Niekerk and Ebersohn in an interview with Careers Portal. 

Deaf people have the same human rights like everybody else, and their rights must be acknowledged. Due to a lot of information not being Deaf accessible, much is missed by the Deaf community.

“A great example is when our President has a ‘family meeting’ without an interpreter – it's not accessible, therefore none of that information is received by the Deaf community,” says Victor.

When asked whether or not South African Sign Language should be implemented as a compulsory subject, such as English or Mathematics as a way to increase inclusivity for the Deaf community, Victor says although it would truly be beneficial, the other 11 official languages aren’t considered compulsory so therefore, the same cannot be asked of Sign Language. 

Various resources will need to be searched for and implemented, such as finding SASL teachers, for which there is already a lack.

However, although SASL is not yet an official language and is not part of the school curriculum as a compulsory subject, it is still important that not only the Deaf community learns and uses the language. 

There are various benefits for children who are taught South African Sign Language from an early age, including the improvement of their cognitive development and the bettering of an infant's working memory, as one study discovered. 

Using SASL is the representation of information through seeing, hearing, and movement, and the more pathways that are created in the brain, the stronger the memory, says Victor, van Niekerk and Ebersohn. 

“When children are taught English and SASL together, they are processing language using both sides of the brain. This gives the children two places to recall language from instead of just one,” explains Victor. 

Bilingualism of any language (whether signed or spoken) is a great booster for brains, as it enriches and enhances children's cognitive processes, leading to higher abstract and creative thinking, better problem-solving skills, greater cognitive flexibility, better listening skills, greater academic achievement, and much more. It also promotes cultural awareness, literacy, and other intellectual benefits.

Teaching children Sign Language (or anyone, for that matter) will also benefit both the hearing and Deaf communities in the long run, as the doors of communication and connection will be opened, without needing the help of an interpreter. 

If you are pursuing a specific career, especially where you will be in contact with or render a service to people, there's a very good chance that you will come across a Deaf person. If you know and can use SASL, your service will be Deaf accessible; therefore more and more of the Deaf community will make use of your service or practice.

“When the hearing community knows Sign Language, this gives the Deaf community access to communication and access to information. If, for example, a psychiatrist knows sign language, he/she will be able to assist a Deaf person without using an interpreter. It's already a daunting appointment to have, now you have to share information with a third person as well,” elaborates Victor, Niekerk and Ebersohn. 

Often, the (unfair) norm within society is the assumption that everyone can hear. That assumption is ableist and dangerous, as it practises Audism, which is the discrimination or prejudice against individuals who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing. 

Sign Language is a staple as to how the Deaf community communicates. If only the Deaf community learns and uses Sign Language, it cuts off their communication with other people outside of the community. 

Although South Africa has made advancements when it comes to Sign Language and the Deaf Community, seeing that SASL has officially been recognized and will soon be the 12th official language, there is still a long way to go. 

“This is huge for the Deaf community and this will also play a great role in advancing the community and their culture. SASL is a beautifully complex language and we [will] celebrate along with all South Africans when SASL becomes official,” says Victor. 

It's important to take note that it's easier for the hearing community to acquire an extra language (in this case, SASL), whereas it's more challenging for the Deaf community to acquire a spoken language. Therefore, the onus lies more on the hearing community to learn the language. 

Learning and using Sign Language is a good way to encourage change and promote inclusivity within our society.  

“It is welcoming and one feels great when someone communicates with you in your first language. You feel included,” says Victor, van Niekerk and Ebersohn. 

The Deaf community deserves the same accessibility and inclusivity as the hearing community, and learning Sign Language is a good starting point for change to take place. 



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