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Strange conversations in the village where everyone speaks deaf talk

For the Invisible People project, my first trip was to visit a rural community with a very high rate of profound, prelingual hereditary deafness in Bengkala in North Bali. Around the village, both the deaf and the hearing use a totally indigenous sign language that has developed here without reference to any other sign language in the world.

Kolok Getar, describing the death of his son in a motorbike accident. Photograph by Irfan Kortschak. Copyright 2010 Irfan Kortschak / PNPM Peduli

I made contact with Ketut Kanta, the volunteer school teacher who taught the deaf children of the village using sign languages, through Connie de Vos, a researcher in Linguistics. I first meet Connie when she came around to my old house in the kampung in Ben Hil late one night with Tom, a good friend of mine and a linguist who worked for the Max Plank Institute in some sort of embedded capacity at Indonesia’s first postgraduate applied linguistics program at the Atma Jaya University. Tom explained that Connie was passing through Jakarta on her way to do field research into a sign language used by the deaf community in Bengkala, a small village in an arid section of North Bali far from the touristic resort towns of the south coast.

Connie looked slightly defensive in a resigned kind of way, as though used to expressions of bewilderment, ignorance and scorn at her choice of a field of research. Later, she told me that even amongst some linguists with whom she had worked had looked down their noses at this choice in a way that they would never have dared to do at a language spoken by, say, two of the last remaining elderly Native American speakers of Serrano. Even in the field of obscure endangered languages, sign languages are sometimes considered not quite a serious business. So, Connie looked relieved and even slightly amazed that I’d heard of the place, having read about it in that now defunct experimental literary-cum-anthropological magazine, Latitudes.

A few years prior to Connie’s arrival, Latitudes had published an article on the strange interactions between the deaf and hearing members of the farming community in Bengkala. According to the article, for the past several hundred years, around five percent of the population have been born deaf as a result of genetic mutations in a small and closed gene pool. Without any reference to or input from any other of the world’s sign languages, a rich, expressive sign language began to evolve in this district.

And this language was used not only by the community’s deaf people. With strong relationships between the members of large, extended families, almost everyone in the village had a more or less close family relationship with at least one deaf member of the community. So, the article said, everyone could speak the sign language and the deaf people of the community were viewed as, if not entirely “normal”, then as accepted and even valued citizens.

Endogenous sign languages around the world

Actually, similarly endogenous sign languages have evolved and developed in small pockets around the world, usually in relatively isolated areas where large numbers of prelingually deaf people grow up together. The most famous of these sorts of languages is probably Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language which was widely used on the island of Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, U.S., early last century. There are other similar language around the world, including the Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language used in the Negev desert; the Adamorobe Sign Language spoken in an Akan village in eastern Ghana; and the Yucatec Maya Sign Language.

My own post-lingual hearing loss

With the hearing aid, I feel that I can listen to and hear people with minimal difficulty in most acoustic environments, although I’ve developed a hatred of clattering shopping malls with hard floors and bad acoustics. Even so, my dependence on my hearing aid made me reflect on the isolating impact of deafness.

Even if it sounded almost like an anthropologist’s wet dream, the story stuck in my memory. Not long before I’d read the article, I’d had a serious diving accident that left me pretty much completely deaf in one ear and slightly challenged in the other. All of a sudden, I had to learn how to use a hearing aid. With the hearing aid, I feel that I can listen to and hear people with minimal difficulty in most acoustic environments, although I’ve developed a hatred of clattering shopping malls with hard floors and bad acoustics. Even so, my dependence on my hearing aid made me reflect on the isolating impact of deafness. It’s still hard for me to imagine the impact of being completely deaf on an individual’s ability to interact with other people and the affect that must have on their view of the world.

The involuted world of Deaf subcultures

As an example of an extreme Deaf separatist, John J. Flournoy, a graduate of the American School for the Deaf in 1856 proposed that deaf people obtain a government land grant to establish a colony “where all of its citizens would be deaf and the chief means of communication would be sign language.”

As might be expected, the web is an effective tool for learning about the incredibly involuted world of Deaf subcultures. For example, I read about the disappointment of some radical Deaf separatists regarding the appointment of Jane K. Fernandes, a deaf woman, as head of Gallaudet University, a university especially intended for deaf and hearing impaired people. According to the separatists, she wasn’t quite deaf enough: she was not prelingually deaf, she had become deaf after acquiring the ability to speak. For some of the protesters,  “Deaf subculture” (note the capital “D”) is  a radical movement that views deafness not as a disability but “as an oppressed minority status akin to race.”  Fernandes had acquired her hearing disability in late childhood, and was therefore not a “native speaker” of a Sign language. As such, according to the radicals, she could never really be considered fully Deaf (Radicalism in the Deaf Culture, The Boston Globe).

A long running controversy that often bewilders those who have had no contact with deaf subcultures relates to the use of cochlear implants, with some hard core activists claiming that this technology threatens the integrity of the Deaf subculture, threatening Sign languages with irrelevance. As an example of an extreme Deaf separatist, John J. Flournoy, a graduate of the American School for the Deaf in 1856 proposed that deaf people obtain a government land grant to establish a colony “where all of its citizens would be deaf and the chief means of communication would be sign language.” According to his vision, even the hearing children of the deaf members of this community could be brought up speaking Sign language, perhaps without even needing to learn a spoken language at all.

Bengkala: Inclusion instead of separatism.

Of course, within the richly varied subculture of the deaf and compared to such separatist visions, Bengkala is at the other end of spectrum, an idealistic vision of inclusion and integration. But for exactly those qualities, when the opportunity to collect stories for the Invisible People project emerged, I immediately thought of Connie and her project in Bengkala. When I contacted her, she was in Holland and busy with writing her thesis. However, she agreed to put me in touch with her research assistant, Ketut Kanta, a hearing member of the community and a volunteer teacher who had worked to provide classes for deaf children.

When I arrived in North Bali in a rented car with a driver, I had a dysfunctional mobile telephone number for Ketut Kanta and extremely vague directions. However, by the simple expedient of narrowing down our search to the right sub-district and then stopping and asking every local resident, we finally found the village of Bengkala and the school where Ketut Kanta taught.

Nobody in Indonesia gets rich by teaching at a government school, and particularly not by serving as a volunteer teacher for the deaf in a remote rural primary school. As a volunteer, Ketut Kanta receives only a tiny allowance, paid irregularly if at all, by the local school administration. However, because his village has received a steady trickle of visitors, including medical researchers, linguists and anthropologists interested in the Kolok community, he generates another source of irregular income by setting aside a room in his house to rent out to these guests. He is also called upon by these guests to act as an interpreter and fixer in their interactions with the Kolok.

A lunch of pork and rice with the Kolok community

People in rural areas of Indonesia are often almost recklessly unconcerned with sensitivities related to privacy or personal boundaries.  Certainly, the topics of conversation that interested my lunch companions were roughly similar to those of other Indonesians in rural areas – no, exactly identical. The only difference was that they asked me in Kata Kolok, the sign language.

Ketut Kanta was quite happy to introduce me to the Kolok. We talked about it and he suggested that I sponsor a lunch for members of the Kolok community. For about a hundred dollars, his sister would cook up vegetables, rice, and pork for around fifty people. I could use the occasion to announce my intention of finding a subject who would be willing to be interviewed (Later,  Inge, one of the finest of the administration staff at World Bank’s PSF, looked at my expense claim for a few seconds before hissing “You can’t just say you are buying everyone lunch! You have to call it a ‘focus group discussion event!'”)

At the lunch, I all of a sudden remembered what it had been like in the first few months when I’d visited Indonesia, when I’d traveled through the rural areas in the islands east of Bali before I had more than around a hundred words of Indonesian. Actually, I’d found that it was fairly simple to learn enough Indonesian to have a conversation, given the formulaic list of questions that a foreigner is usually asked in these areas. The list starts with “Where are you from?” before quickly moving onto “Are you married? Why not? Aren’t you too old not to have children?” and then suddenly, onto broader issues, with “How much did you pay for the airfare from Holland or wherever to here?” before darting back to the personal with “How much did that camera cost?”

Relentlessly personal conversations, in two directions

At the time, it somehow didn’t seem weird to be talking about these things using a sign language with a group of prelingually deaf farmers and agricultural laborers in a remote village in North Bali, even if I still hadn’t really talked them over even with my sister or mother.

Certainly, the topics of conversation that interested my lunch companions were roughly similar – no, exactly identical. The only difference was that they asked me in Kata Kolok, the sign language. For language learning, it was very helpful to have each person come up to me in turn and ask me almost the same questions in turn, in Kata Kolok. It gave me the chance to drill each phrase to perfection. People in rural areas of Indonesia are often almost recklessly unconcerned with sensitivities related to privacy or personal boundaries.

At the time of the trip, I was going through long distance negotiations with a former wife regarding our divorce, a subject that I was still reluctant to talk about with even best friends and close members of my family. But the onslaught of questions from the Kolok in the community was relentless: I soon learned to respond to what seemed like rather shockingly incisive questions about court proceedings and lawyers, property divisions, and the reactions of family members. At the time, it somehow didn’t seem weird to be talking about these things using a sign language with a group of prelingually deaf farmers and agricultural laborers in a remote village in North Bali, even if I still hadn’t really talked them over even with my sister or mother.

Still, the flow of personal questions wasn’t one way. On my first trip to the village, I interviewed Kolok Getar, a tough, gnarled old laborer who trudged the hot, arid hills that surrounded the village to check on the vital – but delicate – system of piping through which the village’s water supplies flowed. I was still in the first flush of the pride of possession of my beautiful, now sadly departed Canon 5D Mk 2, a true professional level camera that I was struggling to justify buying. I had the idea that I would ask Kolok Getar to describe his family life, his work, his daily life in Kata Kolok while I recorded every single word as a single framed image. I hoped that I would then be able to arrange the images, with subtitles, to present his story.

Nice idea, but a dismal failure. Just as with spoken language, people run their words together into a single, unbroken stream, when deaf people sign, it is hard to capture a single word in isolation. When I tried to ask Kolok Getar to speak slowly, signing each word in turn, he was utterly incapable of doing so, anymore than if I asked a speaking person to give a speech introducing himself one word at a time, with a several second pause between each spoken word. Amongst other questions, I asked him about his income and assets and his family life: quite tragic, he’d sold his small rice field to buy a motorbike for his son, who had had a crash and killed himself.

In the end, I got a few isolated images and Kolok Getar’s story, translated by Ketut Kanta into Indonesian, while I transcribed my notes in Indonesian. But communication is a funny business. We use whatever tools are available to us. I hope Kolok Getar didn’t resent me prying into his life like that. I didn’t resent his prying into mine.

 Read more about the  Kolok community in the chapter entitled Everyone Speaks Deaf Talk in Invisible People.

 

3 Responses to “Strange conversations in the village where everyone speaks deaf talk”

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  1. Sparrow says:

    As always, I find ‘the story behind the story’ just as interesting (if not, more) as the profile itself. 🙂

    • Arpita says:

      My sister taguht her son sign language VERY early, before six months I believe. All she did was make the sign while saying the word. For example, she yould ask him, “Do you want some milk?” (saying the word milk slightly louder) and make the sign for milk before giving him any. He learned very quickly that if he wanted milk all he had to do was make the sign, and was able to be very clear about what he wanted. She did that with a few other signs (done, more, and dirty come to mind first, although there were several others.) By the time he was about one, he had replaced most of the signs with baby words, but still used his signs once in a while.For a deaf child, it would probably be the same process, simply without the need of speaking. If you make the sign for milk immediately before breast feeding many times in a row, the baby will quickly learn that the sign means “milk” or “food.”References :

  2. Andrew says:

    Very interesting. I’m always interested in these sorts of anomaly communities as I guess you are. I was reading up just the other day on the people who live in the frozen island of Svalbard. Then I read an article on the people who live in Death Valley where temperatures get up to 50ºC in summer. The anomalies are always interesting.

    You may be interested in the language of the Canary Islands “Silbo Gomero” (Gomero Whistle). It’s a language spoken by whistling, which, in pre-telephone times, could be used to communicate with villages several miles away in mountain areas. I may visit that place sometime and report back 😀

    Thanks for the article.

    Andrew

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