In 2012, I made the short trip to Guyana to meet with members of the Deaf community in the capital, Georgetown, to see some of the work being done by a group then called Deaf in Guyana, now called the Deaf Association of Guyana (DAG), and to do some initial linguistic research. Walking through Georgetown’s beautiful botanical gardens one afternoon, a group of us happened to meet a hearing Nigerian man who had gone to a deaf school as a child in Nigeria (his father was the principal, I think). We chatted together for a while as we waited for a rain shower to pass. We talked about the differences between our countries, about languages and religions. As we talked — a Nigerian, an Englishman, two Trinidadians and one Guyanese, some hearing, some Deaf — the language we used was American Sign Language.
I thought of that trip as I read Julie Hochgesang’s post on what she thought about a job posting in which DAG was requesting Peace Corps volunteers who could teach American Sign Language (ASL) in Guyana. Julie was worried about “linguistic imperialism (the importing of foreign powerful languages).” As she says “Unfortunately in the past, ASL has been exported to other countries and used as [the] language of instruction, ignoring and often superseding local signed languages already in place.”
This has certainly happened in the Caribbean. From Jamaica, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic in the north, right down to Trinidad and Tobago in the south and Guyana on the South American continent, ASL was brought over the course of the 20th century by Christian missionaries, by volunteers and educators, through textbooks like the still ubiquitous Joy of Signing, by Deaf people who have studied in North America and returned home, teachers who have done some training at Gallaudet and elsewhere, and more recently of course through the internet.
In the process, it has certainly disrupted the transmission of indigenous signed languages, and several of these are in danger of being lost forever. I share Julie’s feelings, and support the statements from the WFD about the importance of supporting the documentation and promotion of local signed languages. I’ve written about endangered signed languages on this blog before, and my main research work is in collaborating with the Deaf community in Trinidad and Tobago on the documentation of Trinidad and Tobago Sign Language (TTSL). The Deaf community here are aware of the threat that ASL poses. They value their indigenous language, and have lead work on documenting, teaching and promoting TTSL. But ask Deaf Trinbagonians, and most will say that they want and need both TTSL and ASL. ASL, first introduced in the 1970s is now a local signed language in Trinidad and Tobago just as English is a local spoken language. For some Deaf Trinbagonians ASL is their native language, and many are TTSL and ASL bilinguals.
ASL was also the native language of most of the young people we met in Georgetown. A few, notably those from Deaf families, did know other ways of signing, but there is not, at present, a well established indigenous national sign language. My suspicion is that there are several distinct signed language varieties used in different communities in the country, and there’s no doubt that research into these varieties is an urgent priority. Despite its small size, Guyana has enormous linguistic diversity: from the many indigenous languages which were here before Columbus, like Lokono and Akawaio; the creole languages with their complex heritages combining African languages like Eastern-Ijo and the languages of European colonisers like English and Dutch; Hindustani brought from India; English, which is widely used as the language of government and of formal education; as well as several other immigrant languages. Sometimes the discussions around signed languages seem to assume that there should be a one to one relationship between countries and signed languages, and, in this case, that there’s a choice to be made between GSL and ASL. But why shouldn’t we expect greater diversity than this? Stable multilingualism is perfectly common, and, with proper language planning, need not pose a threat to smaller local languages.
I met several Deaf Guyanese people in more rural areas whose only language is ASL, taught to them by Jehovah’s Witnesses. When people we spoke to referred to Guyanese Sign Language, it seemed that what they meant was a variety of signing which is very close to ASL, close enough for us to understand on the basis of our knowledge of ASL and I’m fairly sure that ASL is currently the most widely used signed language in the country.
When I first met Sabine MacIntosh, the President of DAG, on a trip she made to Trinidad, she showed me an illustrated booklet they had made providing information about sexual health and STIs to Deaf Guyanese people. Apart from being tremendously impressed by the quality of the work, despite the tiny budget on which it was achieved, I confess that I did also wonder why the signs depicted in the book seemed to be ASL. I now think that this was the only realistic choice. The long term vitality of indigenous sign languages is extremely important, but sometimes, when faced with immediate and life-threatening problems such as the rapid spread of HIV, just being understood has to take priority, and if you want to provide crucial information, accessible to the greatest number of young Deaf people in Guyana at the moment, the best language to use is probably a variety of ASL, because it is the language that most young Deaf people know.
While I hope that indigenous languages are documented, taught, promoted and empowered, I have no doubt that volunteers with experience of teaching ASL could have a hugely positive impact on the work that DAG are doing. We linguists need to provide additional support to groups such as DAG who are interested in documenting and promoting indigenous languages. Language documentation is a challenging and time consuming process which requires training, resources, wide community involvement and collaboration. DAG, with its leadership made up of an equal number of Deaf and hearing members* are well placed to lead this work, but they need our support.
Just as the English language is no longer only the language of the English, who constitute a small minority of the world’s English speakers, ASL is no longer the language only of the (North) American Deaf community. Deaf people from Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Nigeria and many other places sign ASL natively with their own accents and variations of grammar and vocabulary. In many of these places ASL has been in use for decades, and it is too late now to say that it is not local. Accepting that does not mean that we have to give up on the crucial work documenting the hundreds of undescribed signed languages around the world.
*The Trinidad and Tobago Association for the Hearing Impaired, for example, has a much less impressive record (the clue’s in the name).