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August 26, 2015

With thousands of signs, deaf no longer short of words


August 26, 2015

The deaf community in Pakistan does not have to be silent anymore. Finally, they too have a native language of their own.
The 5,000-word strong vocabulary of the Pakistan Sign Language (PSL) can now enable the deaf to communicate with the world and the world to communicate with them.
The silence may still be around them but now they have a tool to bridge the gap of human connection and pursue personal growth.
Documented after a thorough research by the Family Education Services Foundation (FESF) with the Ilm Ideas’ help, the Pakistan Sign Language dictionary provides more than rudimentary language for deaf people in the country.
The landmark Pakistan Sign Language dictionary not only documents 5,000 signs for everyday items and specialised subjects including biology and computers for teaching purposes in Urdu and English, but also translates the signs in the four regional languages of the country - Pashto, Punjabi, Sindhi and Balochi.
It allows not only deaf children to learn words and enable them to learn, but also helps countless hearing parents communicate with their children who are unable to hear.
“A deaf child who has been born in a hearing family has the vocabulary of between 50 and 60 words by the time they are five years old and all of those words or signs in this case, are for survival… water, sleep, eat, etc - all pertaining to basic needs,” said Richard Geary, the director of the FESF. “On the other hand, a hearing child has a richer vocabulary and can make intelligent conversation.”
There are around 1.25 million deaf children in Pakistan of school-going age but less than two percent of them actually attend school.
The problem is that no one knows how to get through to someone who in a large part of the society is still referred to as “deaf”, “mute” and even “dumb”.
More than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, most of whom for the most part do not know how to

communicate with their children.
“More than half of the words or signs in the Pakistan Sign Language lexicon were being already used in various forms,” said Aaron Awasen, the FESF administration director. “The remaining 50 percent signs had to be created for academic words, for example, electromagnet, hard disk and oesophagus.”
This way, the PSL is equipping deaf children with more than basic literacy. The students, who learn the PSL already being used to teach at several FESF-operated schools all across the country, are trilingual.
Besides their native language, the students are fluent in Urdu and English as well and can easily compete with students of reputed schools in the province. The students even appear in regular matriculation examinations and perform well.

Language as a skill
Commenting on the effort, Abbas Rashid, who heads the Society for the Advancement of Education and researches the effects language has on learning, said, “It is a commendable feat because conceptual understanding and secondary cognitive skills develop once the language barrier has been bridged.”
In the absence of a proper language and lack of awareness about it, the opportunities for the community have remained limited at best. But with the PSL, the users and instructors can build on it and customise it according to their own needs.
The biggest example of this is the Code Ear programme launched by FESF in January this year that aims to give deaf children access to cutting-edge computer science education in Pakistan. In the first phase, however, 12 students have been selected to learn coding and advanced computer programming.
“For now, the students are learning basic HTML programming,” said Sajjad, a staff member at Deaf Reach. “Several basic terminologies are part of the Pakistan Sign Language, and can be used to explain advanced programmes and techniques.”
Rashid said keeping in mind the developmental needs of the students while designing the curriculum goes a long way because the instructors and learners both feel comfortable with it.
“Languages should be taught as a skill, not as a subject to make the students fluent in its usage,” he said. “If it is taught with an emphasis on communication by utilising interactive modes of learning, it will go a long way in enhancing the professional development of deaf students.
Geary said they had tried to provide a working model for teaching deaf students who otherwise remained marginalised.
“It can be tweaked and improved with time in accordance with the requirements of the instructors and the subject of learning.”

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