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Research project gives insight into the world of the deaf
2005-11-30

Mr Akach in conversation (using sign language) with his assistant Ms Emily Matabane. Photo: Lacea Loader

UFS research project gives insight into the world of the deaf

The Sign Language Division of the University of the Free State’s (UFS) Department of Afro-Asiatic Studies and Language Practice and Sign Language has signed a bilateral research project with the universities of Ghent and Brussels to write a book on sign language. 

“We want to compare the Belgium and South African sign languages with each other.  The book will be about the deaf telling us about themselves and how they live.  It will also focus on the use of story telling techniques and the grammar used by deaf people.  We want to see if the hand forms and the grammatical markers and other linguistic features that deaf people from these two countries use are the same or not,” said Mr Philemon Akach, lecturer at the UFS Sign Language Division and coordinator of the research.  

According to Mr Akach, the sign language community in South Africa, with about 600 000 deaf people who use South African Sign Language (SASL) as first language, is quite big.  “Over and above the deaf people in South Africa, there are also the non-deaf who use SASL, like the children of deaf parents etc.  This book can therefore be used to teach people about the deaf culture,” he added.

Another of Mr Akach’s achievements is his election as Vice-President of the newly established World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI).  The association was established earlier this month during a conference in Worcester.

Mr Akach has been actively involved with sign language interpretation since 1986 and has been interpreting at the World Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) since 1987.  “My appointment as Vice-President of the WASLI is an emotional one.  I have been involved with deaf people for so long and have been trying to create awareness and obtain recognition for sign language, especially in Africa,” said Mr Akach.  WASLI is affiliated to the WFD.

According to Mr Akach there was no formal structure in the world to support sign language and sign language interpreters.   “Now we have the backup of WASLI and we can convince governments in other African countries and across the world to support deaf people by supporting WASLI and therefore narrow the communication gap between the deaf and the hearing.  My main aim as Vice-President is to endeavour for the recognition of sign language and spoken language interpreters as a profession by governments,” he said. 

According to Mr Akach the formal training of interpreters is of vital importance.  “Anybody who has a deaf person in his/her family and can communicate in sign language can claim that they are an interpreter.  This is not true.  It is tantamount to think that all mother tongue or first language speakers are interpreters.  Likewise students who learn sign language up to whatever level and are fluent in signing, should still join an interpreter’s programme,” he said.

“Sign language interpreting is a profession and should be presented as an academic course alongside other spoken languages.  The UFS has been taking the lead with sign language and spoken language interpretation and was the first university on the African continent to introduce sign language as an academic course,” he said.

“Although sign language has always been an unknown language to young people it has become quite popular in recent years.  This year we had a total of 160 students at the Sign Language Section of the UFS and the numbers seem to increase steadily every year,” he said.

Mr Akach’s assistant, Ms Emily Matabane, is deaf and they communicate in sign language.  Ms Matabane also handles the tutorials with students to give them hands-on experience on how to use sign language.  


Media release
Issued by: Lacea Loader
Media Representative
Tel:   (051) 401-2584
Cell:  083 645 2454
E-mail:  loaderl.stg@mail.uovs.ac.za
30 November 2005

 

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