MALAYSIA can only truly be united when inclusiveness is a way of life.
This means celebrating the many different languages unique to every community – including the deaf.
The deaf, said Malaysian Federation of the Deaf (MFD) executive director Mohamad Sazali Shaari, are proud of their mother tongue and long for it to be recognised as a unique Malaysian language because it’s “the way we speak”.
For over two decades, the deaf community has been fighting for the use of their mother tongue – the Malaysian Sign Language (or known by its Malay acronym, BIM or Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia) – in schools.
Recalling how the Malaysian deaf community lost the use of their mother tongue, Mohamad Sazali said it started in the 1960s when American Sign Language (ASL) was introduced in the country, pushing colloquial signs out.
Then in 1978, the Manually Coded Bahasa Malaysia (KTBM or Kod Tangan Bahasa Malaysia) was taught in schools, marking the point when the community begin to lose not only its mother tongue, but also its identity and culture.
Sharing an example, he said there are different signs for the word “marry” because the different races have different ways of marking the event.
For the Chinese, it’s a sign representing the tea ceremony but for the Indians, it’s the long hair.
“Colloquial signing, which was formalised into BIM, is dynamic and vibrant because it reflects a way of life. It’s what we speak at home. KTBM ignores the beauty of our way of life.
“The misconception that BIM is a ‘rojak language’ must be corrected. It’s a visual language unique to Malaysia. BIM includes the use of animated facial expressions to get the message across clearly.”
The MFD embarked on the project to compile colloquial signs developed and used by the deaf community some 20 years ago.
The first book with 1,000 words was published in 2000. In 2016, a third edition was printed. There are now over 9,000 words in BIM.
Explaining the painstaking process, Mohamad Sazali who headed the project, said a team was sent to deaf communities nationwide to observe how they communicated.
“Over a three year period, the signs used were documented. We took photographs and did sketches. We then invited the communities to finalise the signs to include in the BIM,” he said, adding that the BIM qualifies as a mother tongue because it’s the language one learns first, identifies with or is identified by others as a native speaker, knows best, and uses most.
And, Unesco’s Salamanca Statement on special needs education states that educational policies should take full account of individual differences and situations, he added.
The importance of sign language as the medium of communication among the deaf, for example, should be recognised and provision made to ensure that all deaf persons have access to education in their national sign language.
“As part of its efforts to champion the BIM, plans are underway to set up an academy. The focus will be on enhancing, and promoting BIM, through collaborations with academia.
“Our biggest challenge is convincing policy makers that although we’re not linguists, we know our language best.”
Last year, the Education Ministry issued a circular announcing that teachers could use either BIM, or BIM alongside KTMB, to teach.
However, for communication purposes, BIM was encouraged.
This, said Mohamad Sazali, was a small win after years of facing a brick wall.
“Every time we raise the issue with the ministry, we are told that there is a KTBM policy in place so most teachers continue to shun BIM. Hopefully the new Education Minister can make BIM mandatory for the good of our children.”
MFD president Tengku Arman Harris Tengku Ismail said teachers must be skilled in BIM because it is the only way they can teach effectively.
“The KTBM code system we are using now has failed our children. Please give deaf kids a chance to excel by allowing them to learn in the language they are most comfortable in.”
The National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) has pledged to champion the right of deaf children to learn in their mother tongue.
The union’s 220,000 members, said its secretary-general Harry Tan, were supportive of BIM because it’s easier and faster to learn.
“Unlike with hearing students, deaf children only need to master two skills – reading and writing. Listening and speaking skills aren’t applicable to them so the KTBM’s emphasis on sentence structure and reading are counterproductive to their learning. We must make sure that the language and curriculum we use for the deaf, are the ones best suited to enhance their potential.”
He said learning the localised signs benefits all of society – not just the deaf.
“Everyone gets old one day. Then, you may not hear or speak as well as you used to when you were younger. Knowing how to sign helps you communicate with the family. So, don’t think that this language is only for the disabled,” he said, adding that there are 22 deaf teachers nationwide.Read more at https://www.thestar.com.my/news/education/2018/08/26/see-us-its-the-way-we-speak/#DX2ehq08BOww0ZIF.99