When I departed Singapore for Australia in 2003 as a teenager, never did I imagine that I would come full circle. From the 14th to the 16th of October, I attended the 5th World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) Asia Conference right here in my homeland, Singapore. The theme of the conference was “Embracing Diversity in Deaf Communities”. It was my second time at a WFD conference. The only difference this time round – I wasn’t a delegate, I was a presenter.
It actually feels just not too long ago yet so far away when I went to my very first WFD conference held in Sydney, Australia, in 2013. I wrote a blog post about the conference titled DEAF DEAF SAME back then. I recall the experience being an eye-opener and it got me thinking about pursuing a path in human rights. A few months later after that conference, I sent off my application for the MA in International Development program to Gallaudet University and subsequently gained successful admission in the program. Truth be told, I had no idea what to expect when I made the big move to Washington, D.C in August 2014. Life there wasn’t anything like I had envisioned it to be but the opportunities that opened up along the way far exceeded my expectations. When I reflect on all the occurrences that led up to this very moment, I am astounded at how well everything fell into place at all the right times and how God allowed me to cross path with certain individuals whose roles in my life turned out to be instrumental in some fashion.
The summer of 2016…
During the summer semester from 17th May to 14th July, I interned at the Singapore Association for the Deaf to fulfill coursework requirements for my international development program. I was given the opportunity to undertake fieldwork research for the Singapore Deaf community. Just before I left the USA to fly to Singapore to commence the internship, I was feeling somewhat apprehensive about the whole thing as I didn’t know how things would pan out especially having been away from home for most of the time during the past 13 years. Many questions raced through my mind – How would I be received by the Singapore Deaf Community? What challenges would I have to confront? Would I be able to fit in after being away for such a long time? Much to my surprise, I settled in a lot quicker than I thought and people were more receptive than I expected. I was assigned a fieldwork research project where I had to interview deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals across 4 different eras of schooling in the Singapore Deaf Community and document historical change. I traced the origins of Singapore Sign Language (SgSL) and gained insight into the linkage between identity formations and language usage. The more I learned, the more I became aware of how much I had missed in my absence from home the last couple of years.
While I enjoyed the project immensely, I encountered the challenge of experiencing reverse culture shock and having to adjust my framing in order to understand how various individuals I interacted with made sense of their experience as a deaf person in Singapore and perceived their identity. One of the best things that occurred during my stay in Singapore was seeing old friendships being revived and new friendships forged. In the process of it all, I also got an inkling of what kind of work I would like to dedicate the rest of my life to doing.
Some time mid-way through my internship, Mr Lim and Yong Ming asked me to consider the possibility of coming to WFD Asia to present my research and told me that they could find a way to sponsor my flight back home. Although I was initially in two minds about making the long trip home in the middle of the fall semester, I accepted the invitation to be a presenter at the conference after obtaining permission from my academic advisor who also encouraged me to take the opportunity.
WFD Asia Conference 2016
During a brief conversation during the WFD Asia Delegates reception on Monday night 10th October…
Friend: “Are you nervous about presenting at the conference?”
Me: “I actually haven’t thought about it yet as I have been so busy trying to finish off homework for school.”
When Friday came around and the opening ceremony commenced, I was a bundle of nerves seeing the number of academics and delegates who were present. For a moment, I felt so inadequate and worried that people might ask me questions that I would not be able to answer. I spent Friday night tossing and turning in bed and it was quite a while before I actually fell asleep. When Saturday morning came, surprisingly, I felt okay. It was such an honor to be up on stage with Jarn May and to represent Singapore. Our presentation was titled A Historical Account of the Singapore Deaf Community (1950s to present): Shifting Identities & Language Usage. Both of us worked in tandem with each other; Jarn May presented on the history of the Singapore Deaf Community and the origins of SgSL while I shared my research process and my findings and analysis from the project. I was encouraged by several of the positive comments and feedback we received on our presentation after that. People came up to talk to me during lunch and at other occasions. They had questions for us and wanted to know more. For those of you who missed the presentation and requested for me to send you my slides, here it is for your perusal.
*Do not distribute without author permission.
Throughout the entire weekend, I had the opportunity to watch the keynote presentations as well as a few of the plenary presentations. When we had to decide between two plenary presentations because they occurred during the same time slot, it was so hard to choose because all the topics were so varied and interesting. I wished that I could have gone to almost all of them! Each presentation I attended was interesting in its own way and gave me some food for thought. It was also heartening to learn of signs of progress in developments for Deaf communities in different Asian countries as well as their varying perspectives.
Of all the presentations I attended, my favorite was the fourth keynote presentation, The Power of Social Sign Language Acquisition in Asia. The presenter was Mr Yutaka Osugi, a deaf man who is a professor of Linguistics and Deaf Studies at Tsukuba University of Technology in Japan. Given that Asian people are often under-represented in international conferences and academic circles, watching him present made quite an impact on me. He made effective use of many visuals in his presentation to reiterate key points. The presentation was so powerful and everything he said had so much weight.
He started off his talk with the focus on language planning and a summary of the three elements of language planning- status planning, corpus planning and acquisition planning, in relation to the Deaf community and how their governments sometimes engage in language planning. He then spent the remainder of his talk focusing solely on acquisition planning where he discussed topics on linguistic equality, social sign language acquisition and the development of teaching materials.
When Mr Osugi discussed the issue of linguistic equality, he mentioned that we can say that sign languages are equal to spoken language. However, the reality is that a deaf person may never fully achieve linguistic equality. He used an example of a deaf person and a hearing person and how they may typically acquire language. For example, hearing people can easily acquire sign language as a second language as they already have a spoken language as their first language. An interpreter can compare the similarities and the differences between the two languages that they know. They can study and receive training. They can learn about the process. So it means they have a higher level of skill. They know how to use the languages very efficiently and move between both of them easily. However, for deaf people who only know a sign language, if they don’t get the opportunity to acquire a second language, they are already in a lower position in terms of equality. He added “I’m not saying that it is right.I’m just saying this is the way that it is. That a deaf person may or may not be able to achieve linguistic equality.”
Towards the end of the topic, Mr Osugi posed some challenging questions with regard to providing access for deaf children to language and made a powerful quote:
“How are we going to achieve linguistic equality? How are we going to take action? We all need training on how to do that.In Japan, we have a saying: it’s like a samurai with their sword slashing through difficulties. Our sign language is our sword and how we slash through difficulties and barriers and challenges that we might encounter.”
Mr Osugi also indicated that many difficulties are being encountered with how to interact with governments and have influence over language planning. Thus, it is crucial for Deaf people around the world not to work on their own but collaboratively with their associations, deaf friends, sign language interpreters, share information freely and openly and to include DeafBlind people and Deaf people with additional disabilities. He also mentioned the importance of focusing on deaf babies by exposing them immediately to sign language at birth and providing a good language environment for them prior to attending school. In addition, the Deaf community needs to be deeply involved in education in order to improve a deaf child’s skills and to give them the opportunity to navigate their way through the community so that they can be successful later in life.
While I learned so much from this presentation overall, it raised so many questions for me. The one key point I noticed concerning linguistic equality was that the focus appeared to be on the number of languages an individual knows rather than the specific language/s an individual knows. While those who know more than one language do have enhanced cognitive and linguistic capacities compared to those who only know one language, different languages are accorded different statuses in society. Often the dominant language of a particular country is considered “cultural capital” or “social currency” because it grants an individual access to the political, social and cultural spheres in their society. For instance, would a monolingual individual who has acquired English, the dominant language of a particular country as a first language be perceived as having lower/higher/equal status compared to an individual who is bilingual in Spanish and ASL, where neither language is the first language of the country? How would society perceive these two individuals from vastly different linguistic backgrounds? Knowing the dominant language of the country often means having access to power – the it tends to relegate other minority languages to the background or may render them almost invisible. Consequently, oppression occurs as the voices of minority groups in society go unheard. In light of this, is linguistic equality dependent on social-structural conditions and the specific language/s an individual knows rather than how many languages an individual acquires? How does the linguistic landscape of a particular place play a role in influencing linguistic equality? I am eager to know how status planning fits into all this.
Regarding the point about the importance of deaf people working cooperatively together with deaf associations, interpreters and being inclusive of deaf people with additional disabilities, I acknowledge that it is crucial to work together in order to move forward with language planning and development in deaf communities. However, how do we do this effectively especially with the identity politics prevalent in local deaf communities? How do we resolve the in-fighting and move beyond our differences as individuals so that we can improve the way we work together? How do we counter ‘hearing’ hegemonies? Especially when such situations are often not in our control and little can be done to change the status quo.There are countless of roadblocks to address that it almost seems like an impossible feat.
Now I have a barrage questions I wish I could ask the different presenters on their presentations. However, I only found the time to process all that I learned on the plane ride back to D.C. It felt like time went by so swiftly with one presentation after another.
I could go on and on about the various presentations and there so many issues I would like to discuss further. However, for readability sake, I have complied the various shots I took throughout the conference into a slide show. I’ll let the pictures do the talking instead. 🙂
Words of Appreciation
A shout out to the WFD RSA committee, interpreters and all the volunteers that made the conference happen. Thank you so much for your hard work behind the scenes and for pulling the entire conference together. This would not have happened without you. The presenters have certainly worked hard at their presentations but from my perspective, I think it is all of you that have worked the hardest! 🙂
I also write in sincere appreciation to all those who gave their input and contributed to my research project in different ways. Your names are mentioned on the last slide of my presentation. Last but not least, a big thank you to the Singapore Association for the Deaf for sponsoring my flights and conference registration! 🙂 I am extremely grateful for this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Lastly, I got 3 surprises over the weekend…
Surprise #1 – Meeting Mac and Lorraine, friends from Melbourne, Australia, at the conference. Was so good to catch up with them. I was very amused when Mac after he asked me whether I remembered my Auslan, proceeded to test me by signing in Auslan!
Surprise #2 – One of the conference delegates, Krishna, from Canada, came to talk to me during lunch after my presentation. As we talked, we realized that we were on two of the same flights bound for Washington D.C. It was nice having a companion to chat to on various topics and reflect on the conference during the long flight back. I made a new friend!
Surprise #3 – Meeting air stewardess, Tanabe Rie, on All Nippon Airways from Tokyo to Washington, D.C. She signed to me the whole time in Japanese Sign Language! Although I only recognized a few signs that a Japanese friend taught me before and didn’t recognize others, I managed to figure out what she was saying. It was so cool as I’ve never met a flight attendant who can sign despite having flown so many times in my life. I dread long flights but meeting Krishna and Tanabe made the long flight back very pleasant!
2016, thank you for being such an incredible year! 🙂
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think,according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. – Ephesians 3:20-21