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Who’s On First?

Five years ago and half a world away, I was part of the cast of “Rustle of a Star,” an original play at NTID’s Panara Theatre. I was pleased to, along with my colleague, to re-enact the timeless Abbott and Costello routine, “Who’s On First?”

A heavily condensed version follows:

A: Who’s on first?
C: That’s right.
A: I said, who’s on first?
C: Correct.
A: What?
C: No, What’s on second. Who’s on first.
A: That’s what I’m asking you! Who’s on first?
C: That’s right.

And so on–Where is on third, I Don’t Know is the pitcher, etc.–until all hilarity ensues. It went over pretty well on the stage performed in ASL.

However, it couldn’t be performed as easily in Sinhala Sign Language, the language used by deaf people in Sri Lanka (at least among the Sinhalese; I’m not sure yet if the northern Tamils also use the same sign language).

For those who are not in the know, I am currently in Sri Lanka volunteering at a deaf school as an English teacher.

This is because Sinhala Sign Language (SSL) does not differentiate among “who?” “what?” and “how?” The sign for all three is simply shaking your fist. Nor does SSL make any distinction between “when” and “how many?”–both signed by wiggling your fingers like the ASL sign for “wait.”

I first learned this when I was teaching the English words for the five W’s. I thought maybe the pupils in my class at Rohana Special School had misunderstood me, so I asked Samatha, a deaf teacher (actually, the only one there), for clarification. She confirmed the same signs the students had taught me.

Not willing to give up, I pulled the English-Sinhala dictionary from the library and found the Sinhalese translation for each of the five W’s. The conversation that followed between Samantha and I could have rivaled Abbott and Costello.

A: “This is what, right?”
S: “Yes.”
A: “And you sign what like this?”
S: “Yes.”
A: “So what’s who?”
S: “What.”
A: “No, that’s what.”
S: “Yes.”
A: “But what is who?”
S: “What. It’s the same.”
A: “How can they be the same?”
S: “Yes.”

We sorted things out eventually. But still, it was getting in the way of my teaching. I would be teaching this English passage about, for example, John and the chair:

A: “Who is in this sentence?”
Pupil 1: “The chair.”
A: “No, not what. Who?”
Pupil 2: “Uhh..the chair?”
Pupil 3: “You mean John?”
A: “Yes! What is the object?”
Pupil 1: “John?”

And forget trying to explain “how,” a higher-level question!

Last week, Anne, a teacher for the deaf from England, arrived in our neighborhood on Sri Lanka’s south coast to train a few teachers and myself about deaf education and language development. I taught her SSL, and touched on this subject of the 5 W’s and their signs.

“Boy, that’s hard,” she said after I explained the situation.

But by then, I had decided to accept this state of things because, after all, it’s their language, not mine. I would just have to make do. Maybe they use the same words for different questions in spoken Sinhala, too.

But a few days later in one of our training classes, she said that maybe it was necessary to introduce new signs. After all, she explained, spoken and written Sinhala have clear, dissimilar words for each question-concept (what: ku-mahk-dhah; who: kau-dhah; where: ko-heh-dhah…).

And let’s face it–it is a very basic thing to ask “who,” “what,” and so on. Putting aside all arguments about sign language not being word-for-word transliterations of spoken language, why shouldn’t SSL contain these important, yet different question-concepts?

It’s also important to consider that these questions are also integral to education; how can you teach reading, writing, and other subjects if you are unable to clearly express “Who is the person this and this is referring to? How did this person arrive at school? What did he bring?”

I was convinced (and remain so) of the critical need for new Sinhala signs to represent these questions. Another volunteer added that languages were always evolving anyway; certainly it’s okay for SSL to do the same thing.

Which signs to use, though? Anne and I agreed that we should introduce the British Sign Language (BSL) signs for “who,” “when,” and “how,” and keep the SSL signs for “why,” “what,” “where,” and “how many.” The interesting thing is that all four SSL signs we are keeping are also exactly the same as their BSL counterparts.

BSL seemed to be a good choice because many SSL signs are the same as BSL, which isn’t too surprising given that Sri Lanka is a Commonwealth country and just became independent from British rule about fifty years ago. In fact, 75% of the foreigners I meet here are English; I am still the only American I know around here.

To elicit some feedback, I shared this idea with three students.

One of them, Sanjeewani, said, “Oh, Sophie [a volunteer from before] did that already. But the deaf association said it was bad, and made us go back to the old signs. It’s difficult!”

Oh. Wow. So Anne and I don’t get points for originality. Anne came back to me the next day and reported that she asked the teachers the same thing, and received exactly the same response about the deaf association squashing these new signs. Anne said the deaf association had said, “we don’t use British signs. We use Sinhala signs.”

Who thought this would be easy? That doesn’t mean I’m not going to try to re-introduce these signs. Sophie, for all the incredible work she did last summer, is a hearing female foreigner. I am a deaf male foreigner; as chauvinist as it sounds, that’s two more attributes in favor of me.

I’m going to approach the association next week and ask them to reconsider. I also need to discover whether their objection lies with using British signs (in this case, easily resolved by having them invent new signs on the spot) or using new signs at all (in this case, not so easily resolved).

Frankly, the children’s education is being crippled by an inadequate sign language system, and I’m going to try my best to correct this by expanding SSL’s vocabulary. It’s a very small expansion in quantity which will result in a very large change in quality.

My whole point of writing about this fascinating issue and posting it on DeafDC.com, instead of on my personal blog, was to elicit feedback from other deaf people.*

What are the ethical implications of introducing new, possibly foreign signs? What about the fact that it is being driven by foreigners rather than by deaf Sinhalese people? Are there other ways around this that I’m missing? Why shouldn’t I do this? Are there other deaf people who have experienced similar situations when they volunteered overseas?

*And because I did promise my former employers I would write on DeafDC.com every once in a while! 

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