Blog Post

Tracking the Origins of Cambodian Sign Language

Mist-covered Bokor Mountain in Kampot Province, one of the last Khmer Rouge strongholds, held until the 1990s.

PHNOM PENH - In a dim room at the Deaf Community Center in Phnom Penh, I watch as Chamroeun, a deaf Cambodian and staff member at Deaf Development Programme, narrates the history of Cambodia. As history unfolded before my eyes, I couldn’t help but think about its implications for deaf people.

In front of a slide of the various incarnations of the Cambodian flag, Chamroeun spun through the centuries, crouching and raising his arms into an archer’s pose, becoming a soldier in battle during the Angkor empire. He then straightened, bending his arms into a regal pose to become a king atop an elephant, umbrella carriers at his side. He acted out the battles with Siam, the fall of the Angkor Empire, the arrival of the French, and then independence from France. As we entered modernity, Chamroeun became Lon Nol, the U.S.-backed Prime Minister deposed in 1975, then King Sihanouk in exile in China, and finally, a Khmer Rouge solider. His epic performance concludes with an reenactment of the 1979 Vietnamese invasion.

History Lesson at Deaf Community Center-Phnom Penh from Erin Moriarty Harrelson on Vimeo.

Refracted waves of light from the film illuminate the room, making the ceiling appear as if it was the surface of a swimming pool. Large pieces of paper taped to the wall flutter as strategically placed whirring fans gently cool the room. When I turn away from the film to look out the window, a heavy rain has blurred the view, now an unfocused photo saturated by an Instagram filter.

As the grainy black-and-white newsreel flickered on the whiteboard, grim scenes of ant-like Cambodians trudging in long, twisting lines, emptying baskets of rocks and dirt melted into scenes of an eternally grinning Pol Pot, walking from a car into the Olympic Stadium, speaking to villagers in a forest, and finally, rows of saluting black-clad Cambodians with kramas tied around their necks.

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After the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, civil war raged in Cambodia for almost twenty years. Thousands of Cambodians congregated in refugee camps on the Cambodian-Thai border. Yellowing A-1 sized papers—reports and grant proposals with scribbled notes in the margins— found in the archives at Deaf Development Programme situate the beginnings of Cambodian Sign Language in these camps.

Realizing there were deaf people among the refugees, humanitarian workers at the camps established a “Deaf Project” with funding from the International Rescue Committee. According to an ancient report, the deaf Cambodians at these camps “learned basic sign language…with a strong influence of American Sign Language because the coordinator of the Deaf Project was fluent in American Sign Language.” This report does not explain further what the ‘basic sign language’ was. Was it American Sign Language? Thai Sign Language?

In 1996, the Cambodian Disabled Peoples’ Organization created a space for deaf people to come together. For some deaf people, it was the first time they had ever met anyone else like themselves. In this shared space, the process of creating and documenting a national sign language began.

Samath, one of the first deaf people involved in this process, described it to me:

“The group leader held up a fruit and asked us, ‘What is the sign for this? What is the sign for that?’ We each showed her different signs and one became the sign for the object or concept. Later, they chose me to become a staff member and I went out to the provinces to lead sessions. We wanted to be sure to include signs from all the provinces. It was hard because there were some students who just sat there, not understanding what we wanted from them. ”

While Cambodian Sign Language is in use, the process of documenting Cambodian Sign Language continues as a joint project between Deaf Development Programme and Krousar Thmey. The two organizations are translating the national curriculum of Cambodia into sign language. They have completed the textbooks for grades 1-3. As they translate the curriculum, new signs are being invented by a committee.

Next week, I will write in more detail about the language situation in Cambodia and the work of the Cambodian Sign Language committee.

Below is a translation of my blog, "Tracking the Origins of Cambodian Sign Language" into Cambodian Sign Language.

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