KATHERINE ATKINSON

On Thursday 27 July, the Constitutional Review Committee of Parliament recommended that Sign Language should be the 12th official language of South Africa. The Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) say that they would like to acknowledge this positive step taken “to finally recommend that the South African Sign Language (SASL) be given an official status.” PanSALB say that this is significant not only for the deaf community, but for those who wish to study Sign Language.

The Chief Executive Officer of PanSALB, Dr Rakwena Monareng, said that like any other language, SASL is “a fundamental human right” and that the PanSALB has “made several crucial calls to government to prioritise Sign Language like any other formal language, and ef forts have, for a very long time drawn blank.” The committee acknowledged that the inclusion of SASL as an official language is “long overdue.” In fact, in 2007, DeafSA handed in a memorandum towards the recognition of SASL as the 12th official language. The memorandum, found on the Parliamentary Monitoring Group webpage, states that DeafSA aims “to pro-actively facilitate and successfully lobby for the acceptance, recognition, development, utilisation of resources/interpreter service of South African Sign Language.” However, until recently there has been no follow through. This has inhibited the growth of the deaf community of about 1 million in South Africa. DeafSA liken SASL to a “tree trunk on which all the branches of services to Deaf people can be built.”

DeafSA say that many countries, especially European countries, show acceptance and recognition of Sign Language. DeafSA say that the result of giving Sign Language an of ficial status means “that information, communication, services etc. become accessible to Deaf people in Sign Languages” which is of “stark contrast to South Africa.”

Most recently, South Korea has given Sign Language an official status. On 31 December 2015, Sign Language was declared an official language of South Korea, says SIL International. This legislation was passed after seven years of effort by the Korean Association of the Deaf. SIL say that this is a “historic milestone”, as many deaf communities are marginalised and “without adequate access to education, information or basic services in their language.” The legislation has allowed the South Korean Deaf community to have equal status to non-deaf citizens. SIL added that the legislation opens way for “better access and improved communication in education, employment, medical and legal settings, as well as religious and cultural practices.”

If SASL is approved as the 12 th official language, it is hoped that the result will be of a similar nature. DeafSA says that recognising SASL as an official language will allow for deaf people of South Africa to enjoy the same rights as hearing citizens. They add that “it is only through SASL that the quality of deaf people’s lives can be promoted.”

Perhaps one of the reasons why SASL has not been given official language status yet is because many people may believe that it is just a conglomeration of simple gestures. However, DeafSA say that SASL is “a fully-fledged natural language.” Claire Penn, Head of Speech Pathology and Audiology at the University of Witwatersrand wrote in her book Signs of the Time: Deaf Language and Culture in South Africa that “Sign Language is a real language, equivalent in status to any other language. Deaf persons can sign about any topic, concrete or abstract as economically, as effectively, as rapidly and as grammatically as hearing people can […] there are rules for attention-getting, turn-taking, storytelling, there are jokes, puns and taboo signs, there are generational effects observed in Sign Language, metaphors and ‘slips of the hand’.”

DeafSA say that while every country has a deaf community, the Sign Language of each country is different. For example, American Sign Language (ASL) is used in the United States. However, the dialects are very similar worldwide which allows for deaf communities to communicate with each other in their different Sign Languages. The inclusion of SASL as an official language will act as a springboard for the deaf community, which has been marginalised for many years. Through giving SASL official status, the deaf community will be able to better integrate themselves into society.

Photo: Ciske van den Heever