Sign language, opening the world for the deaf

by Agnes Winarti on 2012-11-13

Observing a sign language interpreter in action with the speedy hand gestures and lively facial expressions at a recent international conference on the rights of disabled people in Bali, one can’t help wondering how hard it must have been to master a language that bridges the silent world of the deaf with the world of the hearing.

In the past 14 years, professional sign language interpreter Pinky Warouw has actively engaged in numerous activities with Gerkatin, the Movement for the Welfare of Indonesian Deaf People.

The energetic and young-at-heart 60-year-old woman is one of the country’s five professional sign language interpreters. In the past five years, Pinky has become an avid promoter for the development of the Indonesian Sign Language (Bisindo).

Pinky, a former country singer, learned to master sign language by chance 14 years ago, when she damaged her vocal cords and was not able to speak for six months.

“I cried for the first months, but then I tried to make something positive out of the incident. I started learning sign language so that I didn’t have to keep relying on writing notes,” said Pinky. She took intensive sign language lessons from a deaf student. Since then, Pinky has been involved in interpreting for deaf communities in churches, as well as at various international conferences.

 Indonesia is home to around 4.5 million deaf people, as estimated four years ago.

“Ideally, we should have 4,000 sign language interpreters nationwide, but we have only five at the moment. Others understand sign language just to communicate with their closest relatives who are deaf. Most of them are reluctant to interpret in public gatherings,” said Pinky, who herself is a member of the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI).

She acknowledged that becoming a sign language interpreter was not easy. Having the courage to appear in public is a must, besides the understanding of the complex sign language itself.

In 1994, the Education and Culture Ministry launched the Sign System of the Indonesian Language (SIBI) to be taught nationwide at schools for the deaf. However, SIBI was later found to be too complicated for use, even among the deaf themselves. Instead of accommodating natural gestures, SIBI — which is mainly based on American Sign Language — followed the structural form of Bahasa Indonesia, including its prefixes and suffixes.

“The system was created by people with normal hearing. It does not work for the deaf,” said Pinky. Although SIBI is taught at schools for the deaf, it’s used mainly in the school compound, while in everyday lives, the Indonesian deaf prefer to use a more practical, natural sign language.

“Like the spoken language, sign language has many dialects, depending on its place of origin. For example, the sign language for ‘pestle and mortar’ is different in Java, Sumatra and Papua. This kind of Indonesian sign language has existed for a long time and was inherited from our ancestors,” said Pinky, citing that Gerkatin and the School of Letters at the University of Indonesia had begun to compile dialects for the development of Bisindo. The university has also sent its linguistic experts to study further at the Center for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Pinky said Bisindo had been estimated to comprise around 30 percent International Sign Language, 40 percent natural sign language, with the remaining 30 percent from the dialect signs used in different regions of Indonesia.

“I believe the Indonesian sign language will become the richest sign language in the world as it is taken from the diverse cultural background of the archipelago. Just like Bahasa Indonesia serves as the uniting language for the nation, Bisindo will too serve as a uniting language for deaf Indonesians,” said Pinky, citing that ongoing research on Bisindo was being performed for the next 15-20 years, to finally result in the publication of an Indonesian Sign Language dictionary.

“I truly hope Bisindo can be widely learned by deaf pupils studying at deaf schools,” she said. Since 2009, Bisindo has been taught as an elective course at the University of Indonesia’s School of Letters. Courses have also been available at the Cathedral Catholic Church and Gerkatin headquarters in Jakarta.

It has been recently reported that the Bisindo course at the University of Indonesia has gained in popularity. From only having 40 students when it was first launched, up to 105 students now attend the Bisindo course.

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