Most people on the planet are bilingual or multilingual. It might be surprising to the typical English speaker that being able to communicate in just one language is more the exception than the rule. Here in Trinidad and Tobago, despite some of us having vague memories of elders speaking French creole more commonly referred to here as patois, and all of us encountering Venezuelans on a regular basis, we still view polyglots as somewhat of a rare breed.
But there is also another group of Trinis who number in the tens of thousands whose first language is none of the above. The Deaf. And yes, ‘Deaf,’ not ‘hearing impaired’, is how they preferred to be referred to. The vast majority of Deaf people, and many of their hard of hearing fellow citizens in this country, ‘speak’ sign language – Trinidad and Tobago Sign Language to be precise.
An extremely rich, visual language, which reflects all of the colour, vibrancy and quirkiness of Trini dialect, TTSL is the means by which thousands of locals of every demographic communicate with each other, and participate in a culture that helps to shape their identity and foster a sense of pride and community.
Deafness is often referred to as the invisible disability; often you cannot tell that someone is Deaf unless you see them wear a hearing aid or see them use sign language. The upshot of this is that people tend to underestimate the size of the Deaf population, and, unfortunately, less effort and resources are put into ensuring accessibility for Deaf people in public spaces, schools, business places, public sector offices, and places of worship and so on.
But ramping up access for Deaf people need not require huge investments in facilities or infrastructure, a concern that some organisations might have. One way to connect the Deaf population with their Hearing counterparts is for Hearing people to learn sign language. At Caribbean Sign Language Centre we advocate on behalf of Deaf and hard of hearing persons across the region, and encourage everyone to learn sign language, preferably by attending our classes which take persons from Level 1 – beginner stage – to Level 3 where they become much more fluent. We use Deaf tutors as well as Hearing tutors: As with any language, much of the subtleties and nuances are best taught by people for whom sign language is their first language.
And another thing. While TTSL shares much of the vocabulary with American Sign Language (ASL), there are significant enough variations for it to be considered a separate language. Apart from local words and expressions (‘Two doubles, slight pepper” anyone?), TTSL has evolved its own unique parlance, so ASL tutorials on YouTube would just not do if someone wants to really learn to converse with locals in an authentic way. The same applies across the Caribbean, of course, resulting in a beautiful tapestry of languages that are very similar but distinct in their own right.
Greater diversity and inclusion in all spheres of life is indisputably a good thing, as more people are able to contribute their ideas, talents and skills to our society. The more people that learn sign language, the better it is for Deaf people, who will relish the ability to communicate with Hearing persons and the increased access to employment, education, worship, leisure and public services that come with it. Deaf people have and should enjoy all the same rights as everyone else, and at CSLC we were honoured very recently to have been asked by the Pan American Health Organization to translate the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) into TTSL!
Learning sign language helps Hearing people too, perhaps in unexpected ways. For example, studies have shown that people who learn sign language get better at multitasking, improve motor skills, develop better peripheral vision, and have better all-round communication skills.
So as we commemorate and celebrate the International Day of Sign Languages during Deaf Awareness Week 2021, we invite everyone to find out more about the wonderfully important language that Deaf Trinidadians and Tobagonians would love to share with the rest of the population. And of course we invite you to sign up for sign language classes!
To sign up for classes, or discuss bespoke training for you organisation, please call us on 868 340 CSLC (2752) or 868 377 3863. We also offer sign language interpreting and translating.
You can also reach us on [email protected].