Cambodia’s Deaf Wait for Words of Their Own

When Suos Veasna was growing up, he knew no language but the one he made up himself.

Suos Veasna is deaf, but when he began school at age 23, he sat in class with other students, though he could not hear what was being said.

“I used natural sign language at first,” he said. “In 1998, I started to study with hearing children at the normal government school, but they could not communicate with me. It was very difficult,” he said in sign language.

Now Suos Veasna is a teacher at Krousar Thmey, an NGO which runs Cambodia’s only formal school system for the deaf.

He communicates with a mixture of American Sign Language, or ASL, and what researchers and deaf advocates hope will one day be a unique Cambodian Sign Lan­guage—a language that has al­ready been nine years in the making, but that still has a long way to go.

Like Suos Veasna, up until re­cently, Cambodia’s deaf population had no language at all.

There was not a formally educated deaf person in the country, ac­cording to Charles Dittmeier, pro­ject director of the Deaf De­velopment Program, which is funded by the Catholic NGO Mary­knoll and the Finnish As­so­ciation of the Deaf.

In virtually every other country, Dittmeier said, sign language has developed spontaneously.

But in Cambodia, due to the isolation of deaf people and other social and economic factors, such natural signs never emerged.

Dittmeier said that until 1996, when the first international field workers came to Cambodia to work with the deaf community, there were no deaf organizations and no deaf education.

Even now, he said, there is only the very initial stages of Cambod­ian sign language.

The DDP and Krousar Thmey have been working with deaf re­search­ers, linguists and Cambod­ia’s deaf population to create a sign language specific to Cambodia.

The World Federation of the Deaf and UN conventions insist that every person has the right to their own language and that applies to deaf groups, Dittmeier said.

But the process is difficult and slow.

At DDP, a team of deaf re­search­ers videotapes deaf people interacting; identifies new signs; records them with a complex no­tation that shows hand-shape, mo­tion, position relative to body and orien­tation; and then test the signs. Each sign must also be ex­am­in­ed in a historical, linguistic and cultural context, Dittmeier said.

DDP is also trying to encourage Cambodians to meet, interact and create their own signs.

“When deaf people come to­gether they start talking and when they don’t have a sign for something they will create one. That’s what we want: For deaf people to create a sign language spontane­ously and naturally,” Dittmeier said.

Since the first research began in 1996, some 2,000 Cambodian signs have been recorded and agre­ed upon—but Dittmeier said the DDP and Krousar Thmey com­mittees currently can record only about 100 new signs a year.

A definitive Cambodian Sign Lan­­guage dictionary may still be 20 years away, he said.

Still, for deaf Cambodians, it is a good start.

Now, at least, they have a name for their country—a hand gesture reminiscent of knotting a sarong at the hip.

“When I was growing up I didn’t have any sign language,” signed Heang Samath, a deaf Cambodian researcher at DDP.

“Now we are able to videotape the children with the sign language they are using, and record them so we keep learning more and getting more signs.”

Now the task at hand is to teach deaf Cambodians to use the sign language and to give them literacy skills.

DDP, which runs free two-year courses for adults, is hoping to create vocational training programs by next year, and Krousar Thmey eventually hopes to graduate its students, into secondary schools and universities.

But as of this year, Krousar Thmey’s 15 most advanced students are in the ninth grade, while others have gone to work in un­skilled, low-paid jobs such as sew­ing and weaving, said a teacher who gave his name as Sonthea.

And uniform usage may be a long way off, as ASL is already entrenched at Krousar Thmey, where teachers needed a complete sign language to begin teaching when the school launched in 1997, Dittmeier said.

“Cambodian sign language is not enough—there are not enough signs to use every day,” said Ne­ang Phal­la, Krousar Th­mey’s co-director for education for the deaf and blind.

And a greater concern is the thou­sands of deaf Cambodians that still have no means of communicating.

“Only 1,000 out of a quarter of a million deaf people in Cambodia know these signs,” Dittmeier said.

 

 

 

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