Teach the deaf sign language and you teach them anything

Wednesday March 14 2018


My attention has been drawn to an article by Veronica Onjoro, Teach Kiswahili to hearing impaired (DN, March 7).

Veronica makes a very pertinent point which most teachers and policymakers always brush aside — that deaf children have the capacity to learn English and Kiswahili, the two spoken languages that any Kenyan who goes to school must learn.

The deaf can compete with their hearing peers to the highest level in education and professionally.

The argument that they will be overburdened if we teach them both languages doesn’t hold water.

If we consider Kenyan Sign Language (KSL) as the mother tongue of the deaf, how does learning it and another additional language(s) become a burden?

In Sweden, deaf children learn Swedish Sign Language, Swedish spoken language and English.

In Sweden, there are many deaf professionals who are beneficiaries of this system, called the Bilingual-bicultural (Bibi) approach.

The Bibi approach in Kenya would focus on the education of the deaf through KSL, Kiswahili and English with English and Kiswahili taught as second languages through reading and writing.

However, it is important to note that people who are deaf learn spoken languages like English and Kiswahili so that they can read and write them, not speak them.

The real problem in deaf education is deaf education. Period. Meaning, there is a lot that ails the education for the deaf in Kenya.

Therefore, teaching Kiswahili alone, important as it is (and I agree it is important), will not solve that.

Until we come to the realisation that the main issue with deaf education is communication and start to engage language specialists in mapping out the future for deaf education, we are doomed to fail.

Curriculum developers must realise that developing a curriculum for the deaf is different.

It’s not about the content; this (content) should be the same as for the non-deaf pupils but for the deaf the bottom line is communication.

The deaf have a unique communication need. They use a visual-gestural language, which is different from the audio or sound-based communication system used by the majority of hearing people, including most of the teachers of the deaf.

Let me point out also that it is not true that KSL follows the language structure of American Sign Language as indicated in the article.

Even if they share the same structure, it may just be as coincidental as English sharing the same word order with Kiswahili.

I work at the Department of Kiswahili and Kenya Sign Language Research Project (KSLRP), University of Nairobi.

As an expert, I shall root for the Bibi approach as it advocates for the use of KSL as the medium of instruction in schools for the deaf.

We shouldn’t be playing Russian roulette with the lives of our deaf children with unnecessary experiments that we know will lead nowhere while we know where the solution lies.
Dr Jefwa G. Mweri (PhD), Nairobi.