Blog Post

Creating a Language by Committee

PHNOM PENH - On the white board, nine words in Khmer are listed in blue. In the cool, dim room, members of the Cambodian Sign Language committee are seated at an oval conference table scattered with the various implements essential to their work—iced coffee sweetened by condensed milk, a Khmer-English dictionary, paper and pencils. Papers ruffle on the table as a breeze surges through the barred window, slightly swinging the heavy green shutters.

The list-maker, a hearing sign language interpreter at Krousar Thmey, turns to face the group, pointing at the first word. She then acts out the meaning of the word, using a combination of signs and mime. Another member of the group consults his computer and turns it around to show the others that there is already a sign for the word, a Krousar Thmey sign. Signers from Deaf Development Programme look at each other and nod. DDP does not have a sign for this word so the group votes to use the Krousar Thmey sign.

Over the next three hours, the group deliberates over the nine words, creating signs where none exist. For example, there is no sign for the Khmer word that describes the sound of a tree’s leaves as the wind moves through it so the group created one—a five-fingered sign moving in the air then a clawed handshape twisting by the ear.

During the process of inventing the lexicon of CSL, a member of the group will model the sign, then the others will copy him, considering the number of times the handshape changes and the form of movement. When a sign has been agreed upon, a member of the committee will freeze mid-sign so the illustrator can capture the sign on paper with his pencil.

A member of the Cambodian Sign Language committee is modeling a sign for the illustrator.

In the final product, a book, the sign will be shown in an illustration, along with the definition of the word and directions for the production of the sign. These directions are for people learning sign language, primarily teachers in the provinces who may have a deaf student in their classroom.

This scenario may not make sense unless you know beforehand that there are two sign languages in use in Cambodia: the sign language in use at Krousar Thmey, which incorporates initialized signs from ASL, and Cambodian Sign Language.

When the first humanitarian workers arrived in the 1990s to work with people with disabilities, they couldn’t find any evidence of a national sign language and efforts immediately began to develop a codified, national sign language. At the same time, Benoît Duchâteau-Arminjon, the founder of Krousar Thmey, a large NGO that provides services for over about 2,300 children who are blind, deaf, survivors of violence or have been abandoned, introduced signs from American Sign Language in 1997 as a visually-based system for instruction at the school, with the intent to “Khmerize” the signs over time. Duchâteau-Arminjon made this controversial decision because he strongly believed that deaf children should be in a classroom, being educated immediately, instead of waiting for a national sign language to develop on its own.

Since the late 1990s, Deaf Development Programme and Krousar Thmey have been working together to develop and document the lexicon of Cambodian Sign Language, also referred to as Khmer Sign Language in some documents. This work evolved over two decades in fits and spurts. In 2013, an official committee was established in order to increase the lexicon of CSL, following the national curriculum of the Royal Government of Cambodia. In a recent speech, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered his ministers to ensure that Cambodia had one sign language and it fell to Krousar Thmey and DDP to carry out this work.

The cover of the first grade textbook in the national curriculum of the Royal Government of Cambodia. This version includes sign language, in addition to Khmer text.

Cambodian Sign Language is still a very young language. Most deaf people in the provinces have not had the opportunity to learn CSL, relying on drawing, gestures and home sign to communicate. Linguists have argued that since only a small percentage of deaf people receive a formal education, the current lexicon of CSL is primarily comprised of signs most salient to everyday experiences such as food, family structure and relationships; however, CSL is growing and changing as more and more deaf people receive a formal education from Krousar Thmey or DDP.

This is partly what drew me here—curiosity about the process of inventing a language and the implications of this form of invention. As Cambodian Sign Language continues to develop, what kinds of social formations are appearing? What kind of ideologies and beliefs are being expressed and reinforced through the invention of Cambodian Sign Language? As this project unfolds, I hope to have the beginnings of an answer to these questions.

Below, you will find a video summary of this blog in Cambodian Sign Language. I asked Sreytouch Heang, a member of the Cambodian Sign Language committee to explain the work they are doing, the history behind this project and their future plans. In essence, this describes my blog topic for this week. Thank you, Sreytouch, for taking the time to explain this project!

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