Should Nationalism Influence The Choice Of One’s Sign Language?

Posted by GiftAbled in Disability Rights
February 15, 2017

Is language more important or communication?

At times, I wonder what has been the most important accomplishment of the human species. We read in school that the lighting of fire and the invention of wheel was the stepping stone for the modern human species. More recently, it was the industrial revolution, the landing of a human on the moon, the invention of the internet and the mobile phone. This is what I understand and know about.

However, I will add one more item to this list. Ability to communicate to a fellow being in a language. Language brings us closer and portrays our unique identity to the outside world.

Unfortunately, love for language, at times, brings out the worst in us. It becomes more of a tool to create divisions. It becomes more important to promote a particular language and not the essence of communication. Division and discord are created on the basis of language, even though the very purpose of the existence of language is to connect, engage and empower.

We have seen this being played out in regional politics so many times. That said, the influence of such discussions is reflected even in sign language. Instead of promoting one common sign language to bring more people on a common platform, we are creating differences which are inclined towards jingoism and beat any logical application. This is what baffles me when I hear or read about the unnecessary conflict between the American Sign Language (ASL) and the Indian Sign Language (ISL).

Sign language came up in the West, and ideally, we should pick it up as it is. To ensure we do not create any distinction which can hamper our ability to communicate. The logic given behind the promotion of ISL is that since you are an Indian, you should do signs only in ISL.

Then why not have our own Indian French language, Indian German language, or even an Indian English language. It just does not make sense. Why will I create barriers to communication, when there shouldn’t be any? Instead of working on creating signs for languages which don’t have one? I believe a lot of Indian regional languages don’t have exhaustive sign vocabulary and we should work on them. All of our regional language signs from Kashmir, Kerala, Gujarat and Meghalaya can be a part of  the Indian Sign Language repository.

Let us not try to reinvent the wheel here and leave the English sign language as it is. Let’s learn from it and not create multiple versions of it.

A couple of years back while I was walking down a lane, I could see few kids smiling and giggling. I wondered if they were laughing at me. When I observed closely, I realised that they were not just smiling and giggling, but also communicating with the help of sign language. Yes, this was my first so-called close encounter with deaf people.

I was working with iVolunteer then and used to work closely with many NGOs, including the Association of People with Disability (APD). A few days later, I got a call from one of our active volunteers. I was asked if I could learn sign language. I said, “Wow! Why not?” The next step was to find out who could teach us. I approached APD. Yes, we started learning sign language.

It was my introduction to a whole new community, a new language and yes, a language full of expressions and emotions. I could so connect with the saying, ‘patriotism needs no language’. I discovered that it wasn’t just about knowing the language, it was important to have the passion to communicate. Expressions and emotions are a very important part of the language. I was happy to have learnt basic sign language.

After a year or two, iVolunteer moved closer to Enable India and I committed to teach accounts to the non-voice BPO training batch. Slowly, I started connecting more with the deaf community, started promoting sign language by encouraging more and more volunteers to learn sign language. When I initially sarted signing, I was asked various questions. Are you deaf? Is anyone in your family deaf? If not, why are you signing? Why have you learnt sign language?

I so wanted to change the notion that people learning sign language is necessarily because of them being deaf. We just want everyone to be part of one society.

Similar to regional languages, I’ve realised we have many sign languages as well. I ended up excelling in American Sign Language as many deaf people in Bangalore use ASL. I have done many workshops, including one on communication classes for the deaf, where all modes of communications such as the ASL, ISL, lip reading and presentations are utilised.

Recently, I also started getting messages to learn ISL. Yes, I do love it and I am learning that too. Not because I am forced to, but because I want to communicate with many more deaf people across the country. Recently, we did a workshop for Vijaya Bank employees, where we had some 20 deaf people across India (who use ASL, ISL, lip reading ), and also a deaf-blind who used ASL plus braille.

I am really proud of my team, as we were able to communicate with all and did not restrict ourself to the Indian sign language. Yes, I am a proud Indian who respects my country, my culture and the people. Yet, I am also an Indian who respects every person as a human first. The respect isn’t based on whether he or she speaks in Hindi or ISL.

I hope you all are understanding what I am saying. Please note that communication is important. In rural areas, people don’t even know ASL or ISL. We met deaf-blind people who couldn’t communicate much. I can’t tell him to go and learn ISL, and then come. We must give importance and respect to every person and all languages.

I am learning both ASL and ISL because I want to communicate with all. Yet, when people force people to be familiar with a particular sign language and don’t respect other languages, I feel sad. Really sad. I remember my dad taught quick Maths to 3-4 batches of students. He neither knew ASL nor ISl. He never used an interpreter either. His board and expressions were enough. Many of his students still remember him and have got jobs in banks, etc.

How would you communicate with the deaf and blind? I love it when I communicate with Pradip or Raman, who are deaf-blind. I can’t tell them to stop communicating because they do not use ISL. They have taken ages to learn and become independent in life. This should not be happening. I get motivated to do more for a cause when I see the impact taking place. Yet, such messages do pull me down. I am sure few of you may hate me for this, but I request you all to please take a step to appreciate what volunteers, social workers and NGOs are doing towards awareness and development, rather than pointing fingers on languages!

If you speak in ISL, I will respect and communicate in it, but if any deaf person communicates in ASL, I will also respond to him. It’s just like any other language. Today, many deaf people have got jobs in American companies. Many deaf people working in Indian companies have American clients. Do we stop doing business or stop working and become jobless due to a language barrier? Or do we act in matured way, grow as a person? Both personally and professionally. I am not here to prove that one sign language is better than the other. All that I am trying to convey is that communication is important. Use whatever mode and whichever language.

I end this blog with this thought again. Respect people and communication, not language.

Lots of hopes,


Founder, Giftabled

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