Menu Close

South Africa has advanced the use of sign language. But there are still gaps

A teacher shows pre-school girl sign language.
The South African Sign Language is offered as a school subject from pre-school until the final year of high school since 2015. GettyImages

According to the World Health Organisation report on hearing, mild hearing loss currently affects more than 1.5 billion people – or over 20% – of the global population. Just over 5% (430 million people) live with moderate or higher levels of hearing loss. The Conversation Africa’s Nontobeko Mtshali asked Dr Diane Bell to share her insights about sign languages in South Africa.

What strides has South Africa made when it comes to the use of sign language?

The most commonly used and officially recognised one is South African Sign Language. It’s a complete language with its own grammar, vocabulary and syntax. And like any other language, it can communicate a potentially limitless number of ideas.

The country’s made great strides when it comes to the use of sign language. In 2017, for example, the Constitutional Review Committee of Parliament recommended that South African Sign Language be added as the country’s 12th official language. This hasn’t been done yet. But it was a significant step towards a process of amending the country’s Constitution to make it happen.

South African Sign Language is also officially recognised as a home language in schools. Since 2015 it’s offered as a subject from preschool until the final year of high school. This is important as it facilitates the deaf child’s equal and democratic right to literacy and learning through their home language.

In 2018 the first cohort of Grade 12 deaf learners graduated in South African sign language. They came from 17 schools. Currently, 43 schools offer the language.

South Africa is one of only a few countries in the world that has a formal school curriculum for sign language. Other countries include Sweden, New Zealand and Australia.

The roll out of the national curriculum, since 2015, has created the opportunity for learning to achieve first language literacy at school. This has many cognitive and social benefits. These include improving the learner’s communication skills and reducing social isolation, stigmatisation, loss of independence, poorer literacy and academic outcomes.

But bedding down the new curriculum has not been without its challenges. This has included a lack of qualified deaf teachers.

A number of universities and colleges are now promoting South African Sign Language. For example, the Wits University Language School offers it as a short course. And the University of Free state offers it as a qualification in its Faculty of the Humanities.

But there’s still a long way to go. In 2018 the matric exams – written by pupils in their final year of high school – there were only nine schools that sat for the South African Sign Language exam in the whole country.

Although empirical data is scarce, anecdotal evidence suggests that deaf school children are benefiting from the introduction of South African Sign Language in schools.

How do these developments advance deaf culture?

They recognise deaf culture as a fundamental part of South African culture. They also ensure that government’s commitment to transforming the local education system is aligned with global initiatives on inclusive education.

They also contribute to building a more inclusive education system.

As people are becoming more aware of sign language and the rights of the Deaf as a minority language group, interest in sign language interpreting is growing. For example, news channels offered by national broadcasters are using sign language interpreters in some of their news bulletins. Changes are also afoot to increase the use of interpreters by the national broadcaster and for the provision of captions.

The Presidential Working Group on Disability is pressing for regulations to be updated to will ensure that people who are deaf will also be able to view and engage with television programmes through captions which also include speaker identification, sound effects and music description. These captions can be live/real-time, open or closed.

How is the higher education sector handling larger numbers of hard of hearing students?

The number of deaf students growing. This means that there’s also a greater need for well trained South African sign language interpreters and lecturers. There’s no empirical data available, but it appears that current demand outstrips the supply of suitably qualified and trained interpreters. Real-time speech-to-text and captioning is also extremely limited for deaf students.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has further marginalised deaf students. Learning for students with a hearing loss has become more difficult due to online teaching.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 185,400 academics and researchers from 4,982 institutions.

Register now