By Emmanuel Asonye
Having taken us through the series of argument that Nigerian and many African Sign Language(s) are still overtly and covertly entrapped by neocolonial mentality and attitude, which has continued to endanger their existence and possible development, I hereby present the conclusion of my argument by providing the roadmap how African Sign Language system can be decolonized. However, before I do that, I wish to clarify that I do not suggest an overt imposition of a foreign language on African Deaf communities, rather a subtle but consistent impression in the minds of many deaf and hearing signers that elevates the status of foreign signed language(s) over and above the African Sign Languages to the point that they seem not to exist anymore. If no conscious effort is put towards decolonizing the Indigenous African Sign Language System and recovering its vitality, the languages might really be lost for real. To begin with, below are 4 A-Stages towards the decolonization of African Sign Language System with a focus on Nigerian Sign Language and Deaf community as an example.
4 A-Stages Towards Decolonizing African Sign Language System
1. Awareness Stage
Deaf and hearing signers must be aware of the following facts:
(i) Every definable deaf community has [or should have] their own signed language system — signed languages develop from homes and deaf communities. I have had the privilege of virtual and physical interactions with members of Nigerian Deaf Community where this has been sort of a heated argument and it is quite interesting to know how unpopular the issue of signed language status in Nigeria is in the community as some seem to hold firmly the view that signed language was “invented” by Americans and it is based on English language. Well, I used to believe that too, because that is what the system wants you to believe.
(ii) Early Nigerian deaf community and many other African deaf communities have had “well-developed sign language” as early as the 17th century (Miles, 2005). Indigenous signed language system was found to have been established in Nigeria and other African nations as far back as the 17th century. This means that deaf people who lived in Nigeria and other African countries in that era communicated with one another through a “well-developed” signed language system.
(iii) Any signed language system that is not developed and preserved will die. Just like the spoken languages, signed languages are living natural languages that require the conscious efforts of the users for a continued existence. Signed languages across the world are highly marginalized by spoken languages, while minority signed languages are further marginalized by the majority ones. Indigenous Nigerian Sign Languages, for instance are being marginalized by the commonly-used Signed English (which is not a natural language on its own).
(iv) A child’s literacy begins with his or her immediate language. I have cited several works written by deaf people themselves on this issue. For instance, (Humphries, et al, 2013; Murray, 2015; WFD, 2016) are works by deaf people which have unequivocally asserted that a deaf child needs the signed language of his or her immediate environment and culture to develop the needed linguistic and cognitive skill sets for socioemotional relationship and academic performance. This is crucial.
2. Acceptance Stage
Members of Nigerian Deaf Community (NDC) must accept the following facts:
(i) It is their responsibility to develop the indigenous signed language system. If deaf people in the historic times did use any forms of signed language, those languages may have been marginalized and suppressed by both spoken and signed English at the introduction of Deaf education (Schmaling, 2003). However, indigenous deaf people across Nigeria have been found to use indigenous signed languages (often referred to as “local signs”). Members of Nigerian Deaf Community must accept the responsibility of developing and preserving the Indigenous Sign Language system.
(ii) Nigerian Sign Language must portray Nigerian deaf culture (Wilcox & Wilcox, 2002). One of the unfortunate things that happened to the use of Signed English in Nigerian Deaf Community is that it does not allow for dynamic vocabulary expansion nor for continuous generation of grammar which are properties of most, if not all natural languages. What this means is that signing follows the structure of English word order, while most lexical objects from Nigerian environment and culture (for instance, akamu, moi-moi, akara, etc.) are conventionally finger-spelled because there are no generally-accepted sign names for them, yet signs for these items may be available in the Local Sign Languages. Meanwhile, fingerspelling is a convention of Signed English and ASL.
(iii) If we do not develop our language, nobody will do it for us. One popular TV ad of Dettol says, “If I don’t take care of them, who will?” Fact is, nobody develops (takes care of) another’s language more than the language owners themselves.
3. Action Stage
Signed language users/owners in Nigeria must resolve to take the following actions:
(i) Document the Indigenous Nigerian Sign Language (INSL) and preserve it for posterity. Over the past two decades, the field of language documentation has brought back hope to indigenous people across the world, whose languages were/are at the brink of extinction. Community people, language owners across Africa, America and Europe are rising to recover and revitalize their languages bringing them to the New Media and preserving them for future generations. To show the need and urgency of this situation, UNESCO declared the year 2019 as the International Year of the Indigenous Languages (IYIL), thereby empowering community people to action towards recovering their endangered or marginalized languages (both spoken and signed).
(ii) Document the Indigenous Nigerian Sign Languages for Deaf literacy. The more the Indigenous Nigerian Sign Languages are marginalized by Signed English (SEE), the more the future of tomorrow’s deaf children hangs in the balance. The need for a deaf child to have access to a signed language of his or her cultural orientation in the first five years of development has already been overemphasized in most of my works and those of other notable scholars. If for no other reason that INSLs should be saved, let it be for the sake of proper development and early literacy of Nigerian deaf children most of whom have limited access to signed language at this developmental stage.
(iii) Documentation of Indigenous Nigerian Sign Languages for language studies. When a language is studied, it grows; it becomes widely known and used. Signed language linguistics is the study of signed languages, which subjects any signed language to academic investigations that in turn lead to the development of that language. William C. Stokoe is referred to as the father of modern American Sign Language Linguistics whose works laid the foundation for the study of ASL as a natural language and till today, hundreds of thousands of academic researches are being dedicated to ASL as a native language of Deaf in America.
In 2018, Save the Deaf and Endangered Languages Initiative (S-DELI) engaged in the initial documentation of INSL during which volumes of lexical signs and simple expressions were documented from a deaf community in Nigeria. More documentations are needed towards the development of pedagogical materials, and to inspire further comparative studies on signed language in Africa.
4. Adoption Stage
When all the above stages are in place, one more stage is important needed to complete the cycle — adoption stage. What do we do at this stage?
(i) Adopt the documented Indigenous Nigerian Sign Language materials for pedagogical use in Schools for the Deaf across the country and in mainstream schools. So far, many deaf adults attended either Elementary or Secondary schools, where they were taught with no signed language nor through the assistance of an interpreter. Each of these has a unique story how they survived school, but none of them would tell you that it was a pleasant experience, yet each of them still lives and struggles with whatever negative impact this has on their adult lives.
(ii) Adopt the documented INSL pedagogical materials for use in early intervention program for deaf children. Trained early intervention experts will work with families and homes with deaf children and pre-nursery schools to teach the deaf children, their siblings and parents basic communication signs. New Media technology materials such as smart books, and mobile apps will also be available for use by families and the prenursery schools in teaching the basic signs.
Note: Nigerian National Association of the Deaf (NNAD), government, nongovernmental bodies and technology-based corporate organizations will work together to make this happen. In fact, in my opinion, nongovernmental bodies have a lot to do at this stage. While academic scholars and institutions will engage in more program developments and research findings, Colleges of Education, Association of Sign Language Interpreters of Nigeria (ASLIN) and other relevant bodies will collaborate in training and retraining of Educational Sign Language Interpreters, NNAD will champion the distribution of pedagogical materials to families with deaf children and different deaf communities.
This is not the end of the road. This is just the beginning of a new chapter for Deaf in Nigeria and in Africa at large as this whole process susceptible to replication in any African country.
Emma Asonye is a Speech and Hearing Scientist and a Visiting Research Scholar with Africana Studies, University of New Mexico, Founder, S-DELI (www.s-deli.org).