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Many deaf people living in rural Cambodia wait with great anticipation for visits from the Deaf Development Programme outreach teams. Often, it is the only opportunity they have to communicate in sign language.
This was one of the very few opportunities I had during fieldwork to observe contexts in which it was possible that some of the people involved would be seeing sign language for the first time. Over two days, I observed how transformative being with other deaf people and having a shared sign language was for these students. It began with learning their names in sign language.
In the bluish early morning light, we gathered by the gate of Deaf Development Programme (DDP) with our provisions of fully-charged smartphones, water, face masks, cameras and scarves for what promised to be a long day. The four of us, a teacher, an interpreter, a deaf interpreter and a tag-along anthropologist, climbed into a tuk-tuk and set off, navigating the morning traffic on our way to find deaf people in the villages.
On the white board, nine words in Khmer are listed in blue. In the cool, dim room, members of the Cambodian Sign Language committee are seated at an oval conference table scattered with the various implements essential to their work—iced coffee sweetened by condensed milk, a Khmer-English dictionary, pencils and paper. Papers ruffle on the table as a breeze surges through the barred window, slightly swinging the heavy green shutters. Over the next three hours, the committee will invent four new signs.
Chamroeun spun through the centuries, acting out battles with Siam, the fall of the Angkor Empire, the arrival of the French, and then independence. As we entered modernity, Chamroeun became Lon Nol, the U.S.-backed Prime Minister deposed in 1975, then King Sihanouk in exile in China, and finally, a Khmer Rouge solider. His epic performance concludes with an reenactment of the 1979 Vietnamese invasion. As Cambodian history unfolded before my eyes, I couldn’t help but think about its implications for deaf people.
What happens when a shared language is not an option for communication? Body parts become elements of a narrative. Rocking hands, sweeping arms, and finger-pointing compose a story. Chronicles are laboriously written out in ballpoint ink on the hand. Nearby objects, such as maps, become visual tools to find your way towards a mutual understanding.
The coral grouper communicates with other ocean predators to find prey—a surprising ability for a fish, a new study says.
Elephants may use a variety of subtle movements and gestures to communicate with one another, according to researchers who have studied the big mammals in the wild for decades. To the casual human observer, a curl of the trunk, a step backward, or a fold of the ear may not have meaning. But to…