Sign Language is here to stay at Wits

SOUTH AFRICAN SIGN LANGUAGE ALPHABET: Wits is proposing sign language as an official language on campus. Photo: Provided

SOUTH AFRICAN SIGN LANGUAGE ALPHABET: Wits is proposing sign language as an official language on campus. Photo: Provided


 South African Sign Language (SASL) is being tabled as a mainstream language in the much debated about Wits language policy. Postgraduate courses in SASL at the university are now available for Deaf students.

 In 2014, Wits became the first South African university to introduce the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) mechanism for Deaf students. The RPL mechanism allows Deaf students who have a matric to register as occasional students for SASL third year courses.

Deaf students who register through RPL start their undergraduate studies at third year level; majoring in linguistics, poetry and literature and socio linguistics in SASL. If a student’s average is 65% or more they have the option of doing postgraduate studies in their own language.

“If more hearing people are able to sign, Deaf people would not be so marginalised”

Simphiwe Mkhize and Atiyah Asmal are two such students who registered with the SASL Department in the School of Literature, Language and Media (SLLM). They are now doing their Honours degrees respectively while working full time jobs.

Very few Deaf students register at Wits annually, “We would love to have a larger number of Deaf students here, but society often creates the barrier that marginalises Deaf people,” says South African Sign Language lecturer Naomi Janse Van Vuuren. “If more hearing people are able to sign, Deaf people would not be so marginalised” Van Vuuren said.

Wits and the University of the Free State were the first to introduce SASL in academia. In 2013, the SASL Department at Wits introduced an Honours programme with five students. Then in 2014 Masters by dissertation was introduced with four students, one of which is Deaf.

Rhodes University currently has a SASL division within their linguistics department, while North West University recently entered into a licence agreement with Wits to use the curricula and materials developed by the SASL Department. This is for purposes of phasing in SASL as part of their undergraduate curriculum.

Since 2003, SASL has been a mandatory subject for Speech and Pathology students, but this has not been ratified into the larger Wits community.

Currently nine graduates from the SASL Department at are staff members at St. Vincent School for Deaf learners in Rosebank, Eight are teachers and one is a psychologist. The national interpreter at the Deaf Federation of South Africa (DeafSA) is also a Wits graduate who majored in SASL.  Furthermore, three Wits graduates are currently doing a (Post Graduate Certificate in Education)  PGCE which would enable them to teach SASL as a school subject.  This year South African Sign Language is being implemented as a school subject, meaning that Deaf children are able to have their own language as a school subject, instead of English and / or Afrikaans.

The first language of Deaf South Africans is South African Sign Language, which may have different varieties (‘dialects’) depending on where they went to school.  These varieties in SASL are mutually intelligible, which means that Deaf people can understand each other’s varieties of SASL.

Exclusion, inadequate schools and untrained educators are some of the issues plaguing Deaf students in South Africa.

According to a DeafSA memorandum handed over to provincial and national education departments in 2003, “Deaf learners can only have equal access, equal opportunities and equal rights within an inclusive educational system if their SASL needs are addressed.  This means (a) being taught through medium of SASL by (b) teachers who are fluent or at least competent in SASL, (c) being able to take SASL as one of their languages of choice and (d) have more Deaf teachers who are natural Sign Language users”.

Pura Mgolombane of the Wits transformation and employment equity office says, “iIn the spirit of multilingualism, we are encouraging both hearing and Deaf students and staff to engage in all forms of communication.” Mgolobane says code switching in class will make the learning process smoother for all.

Hearing loss usually results in difficulties learning a spoken language, following verbal instructions, making friends in the neighborhood, behavioral problems due to frustration, accidents because warning signs were not heard according to the UN Pocket Guide to Disability Equity for Leaders of Persons with Disabilities.

In 1994 the Central Statistics Service estimated that a number of 1 609 386 South Africans use SASL.  However, the national Census 2011 reported that approximately only 234 000 South Africans use SASL.  It would be interesting to find out how so many signing Deaf people ‘disappeared’ between 1994 and 2011.   “The majority of Deaf children have hearing parents.” said Van Vuuren. Only a small number of Deaf kids have Deaf parents.

Mgolobane says, “the reference group that has been involved in the drafting of the Wits language policy, have sent a proposal to management to reserve funds out of the R90 million donation to produce opportunities that will create the space and resources for more progress with regards to implementation of the newly proposed, vibrant Wits language policy”.

The talksign campaign is one nationwide movement that promotes the use of SASL and supports it becoming the 12th official language of our country.

South African Deputy Minister of Bantu Education, Punt Janson said in 1974:  “I have not consulted the African people on the language issue and I’m not going to. An African might find that ‘the big boss’ only spoke Afrikaans or only spoke English. It would be to his advantage to know both languages.”  In the context of this particular quotation, the question remains whether Wits will follow mainstream practices (i.e. ‘Deaf people must accommodate hearing people by trying to speak) or whether our university will support linguistic diversity by enabling hearing students and staff to communicate with Deaf students and staff in SASL.