What I think about a Peace Corps posting for a sign language teacher in Guyana

(NOTE: This blog is written from my perspective and the views here are my own. They do not necessarily represent the views of my colleagues nor do they represent the views of my employer. – Julie A. Hochgesang)

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(photo of Deaf Kenyan girl with Julie Hochgesang outside of her home at the deaf school in Kilifi, Kenya when serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2002-2004)

I am a faculty member in the linguistics department here at Gallaudet and my interests lie in language documentation, which is concerned with recording (filming, annotating and making available via computer/online) natural instances of language behavior (conversations, stories, and so on) in the community itself to support further investigation of that language. This compilation of information can serve as evidence for research as well as support the development of additional resources related to that language. 

Language documentation is an activity in which the community itself should be actively involved, or rather initiating and leading. They are the main stakeholders and have the right to decide how their language is represented. According to the Sign Language Communities Terms of Reference principles proposed by Harris, Holmes and Mertens (2009) based on Indigenous Terms of Reference, “Deaf sign language users should be involved in each stage of the research project and not just as consultants. It is important that the community be involved, to understand the aspects of the entire process, to have a hand in the construction of knowledge about their own language, community and culture” (Hochgesang, in preparation).

It is from this perspective of language documentation and firm belief that the community itself should be first and foremost in the construction of knowledge related to their own community that I am writing about a recent job posting that has made its rounds recently on the Internet. I list the original posting directly below and follow up with my email response to the coordinators of the posting. 

A job posting that is currently making its rounds (via email and message lists) in the Deaf community among ASL instructors: 

“Three Peace Corps Response Volunteers are needed to serve as Sign Language Teachers for the Deaf Association of Guyana. There is no organization or institution in Guyana offering on-going courses in sign language – not even at the Ministry of Education. As a consequence, the level of sign language among teachers and other service providers is almost nonexistent, parents and other interested persons have no opportunity to learn sign language and the majority of deaf children, youths and adults have limited knowledge and skills in their own language, namely sign language. The Deaf Association of Guyana’s mission includes actively seeking out deaf persons hitherto excluded from mainstream social-economic activities, promoting the use of sign language as a communication tool amongst its hearing and deaf members, and facilitating sign language classes on request for organizations and institutions.

Three Sign Language Teachers, fluent in American Sign Language and experienced in the teaching of ASL to hearing as well as deaf target groups, are needed to assist the Deaf Association of Guyana with conducting courses and community outreach. The Sign Language Teachers will be asked to design courses and teach ASL to a variety of target groups, including teachers, students, essential service providers, and community members. The Response Volunteers will also support DAG’s efforts in providing sports and cultural activities to youth. Additionally, the Sign Language Teachers will help DAG to report on and evaluate its activities. The goal of this assignment is to improve the level of sign language of numerous stakeholders while also increasing DAG’s capacity to offer quality programming to youth and the community.

These are approximate departure dates and may change. The three Response Volunteers selected will be placed at different local sites. Duties will vary accordingly.”

My response to this post: 

“As a returned Peace Corps volunteer, as a Deaf person, and as a linguist, this job position announcement is troubling to me. First, as you probably already know, signed languages are unique to each community (just as spoken languages are) and as minority languages, they are quite vulnerable to external pressures, such as that exerted by majority languages (usually the spoken language(s) used by the surrounding community but sometimes signed languages brought from more powerful countries). Unfortunately in the past, ASL has been exported to other countries and used as language of instruction, ignoring and often superseding local signed languages already in place. This issue is well known to organizations like the World Federation of the Deaf or Deaf communities who do work with other countries or linguists. It is our belief that local signed languages should be recognized and used in any communicative situation. Encouraging that ASL be used instead is not something we wish to see happen. Perhaps this is not what was intended by those who developed this job position but this is the impression I am receiving from the announcement. I would be happy to discuss this further if need be. Thank you for taking the time to read this. I appreciate that you are mindful of the need to support the Deaf community in Guyana and hope that it can be done in a way that uses the local resources.”

Additional thoughts (not included in the first email to the Peace Corps recruiter): The posting makes the claim that “the level of sign language among teachers and other service provides is almost nonexistent… and the majority of deaf children, youths and adults have limited knowledge and skills in their own language, namely sign language”.

First, the name of their language is not “sign language” – this is a modality of language, just like “spoken language”. One would not say that someone used spoken language but would identify the language itself by its name, e.g., French, Spanish, etc.

Second, there are no statistics provided to support such claims. Perhaps such numbers are not available due to lack of census information or specific surveys for the deaf community. In any case, this is a general and wide-reaching claim that is not clearly supported by research.

Further clarification on this posting by a Peace Corps recruiter (in direct response to my response above): 

“I asked for further clarification from post and wanted to share that information with you.  While the volunteer will learn GSL the host organization has specifically requested an ASL instructor.  I have been told that ASL and GSL are used interchangeably and this NGO was founded with an ASL instruction basis a few years ago.  We are having discussions to see if the NGO would like to have a GSL instructor in the future but the request right now is for ASL instruction and we are working to fill that request.

 So for now it seems to be a mix of both ASL and GSL.  I understand your concern and want to reassure you that we are aware of the issue and have already started discussions about how to adjust future requests.”

My reply: 

“My initial concerns remain then if it is the case that an ASL instructor is being sought for this position. I personally (and I think other people will share the same sentiments as me) feel strongly that Peace Corps should not be involved in this posting. Peace Corps should not be a part of linguistic imperialism (the importing of foreign powerful languages). I have already received a few emails regarding this posting from other people in the Deaf community expressing concern about the willingness of the Peace Corps to support such activities. Peace Corps already has somewhat of a negative reputation with the American Deaf community for allowing ASL to be brought to other countries and displacing local signed languages.”

Luckily this situation is perhaps not as widespread as the posting might lead one to think. For instance, Peace Corps volunteers who are placed in Deaf Education programs are encouraged to learn the local signed language and to use that as language of interaction and instruction. Although this encouragement can be variable (it depends on the knowledge of the trainers responsible for training Peace Corps Volunteer). When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya (2002-2004), I took Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) classes and was encouraged to use this language while interacting with the Deaf community. And more recently, returned Peace Corps volunteers (including myself) have met with people working at Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, DC to discuss issues like these mentioned above. We are engaged in a continuing dialogue to try to address this issue more systemically.

See also: World Federation of the Deaf policy on work with developing countries: http://wfdeaf.org/databank/policies

References:

Harris, R., Holmes, H., & Mertens, D.M. (2009). Research ethics in sign language communities. Sign Language Studies, 9(2), 104-131.

Hochgesang, J.A. (in preparation). Ethics of researching signed languages: The case of Kenyan Sign Language (KSL). In A.C. Cooper & K.K. Rashid (Eds.), Signed Languages in Sub-Saharan Africa: Politics, citizenship and shared experiences of difference. Washington, DC : Gallaudet University Press.

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