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Documenting the signed languages of the Caribbean: Problems and prospects

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Title: Documenting the signed languages of the Caribbean: Problems and prospects
Issue Date: 12 Mar 2015
Description: The Caribbean is home to a rich variety of indigenous signed languages: there are rural sign languages used in communities with high incidences of deafness, in Providence Island (Colombia), the Saramaka village of Kajana (Suriname) and in St Elizabeth Parish in Jamaica; new languages have appeared as a result of the establishment of deaf schools in the 20th century, including in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Cuba; there are almost certainly more signed languages which have not yet been identified by linguists.

Some indigenous Caribbean sign languages, such as the one that Washabaugh (1981) glimpsed in Grand Cayman, are already gone. The futures of all are uncertain. Some of the factors which threaten the long-term vitality of these languages are similar to those which affect spoken languages: the spread of more prestigious international languages including LSF, NGT and especially ASL, and their use in educational settings has already had a profound impact on the linguistic landscape. Other major factors are unique to signing communities, especially the falling numbers of deaf babies being born: successful vaccination campaigns have eradicated rubella, a major course of congenital deafness across the region for most of the 20th century, and as isolated communities with genetically inherited deafness have more contact with metropolitan areas, rates of deafness are likely to fall. Meanwhile mainstreaming of deaf students, better hearing aids and the spread of cochlear implants are also having significant linguistic effects.

The field of Language Documentation has always been concerned with making the most effective use of finite resources in the face of the enormous challenge of the rapid reduction of linguistic diversity. Pragmatic factors are also paramount in work in the Deaf communities of the Caribbean, where longstanding human rights issues must be addressed through better language policies. Priorities are not always easy to reconcile. For example, the quickest and most effective route to providing accessible education, information and justice for a Deaf community may be to focus on a widely understood ASL-based variety. With limited resources and time, this may increase the likelihood that older, less widely used language varieties will disappear in the meantime without having been documented.

This paper sketches the linguistic landscape, describes some of the challenges of documenting Caribbean signed languages, and proposes some ways forward through regional and international collaboration, Deaf leadership and capacity building.

Reference
Washabaugh, William. 1981. “The Deaf of Grand Cayman, British West Indies.” Sign Language Studies 31: 117–134.
URI/DOI: http://hdl.handle.net/10125/25305
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:4th International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)



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