Sign Language Dictionary for South Sudan

South Sudan's first basic sign language dictionary has been published
Sign language in the classroom, South Sudan. Credit: Light for the World

The new sign language dictionary is a historic milestone for people in South Sudan who are deaf and hard of hearing. For the first time, signs have been recorded that can be used for official communication across the country and to address key educational challenges of the deaf community.  Until now, the world’s youngest nation did not have an official basic sign language for nation-wide use. While the deaf and hard of hearing used a variety of local and regional signs, they had to make do with a mixture of Ugandan, Sudanese and American signs for official situations and for cross-regional communication. However, these were not widely known and did not cover much of the signing practiced. The new sign language is comprised of signs that are used in all regions of South Sudan. "The first 200 signs recorded in the dictionary are mainly about everyday topics such as family, education, food and drinks but also cities and state names", explains Klaas Aikes, programme coordinator for South Sudan at Light for the World.

The recording process

Over the past three years, Light for the World designed and coordinated the process of recording the new official sign language of South Sudan together with local and international actors – among them members of the South Sudanese deaf communities and two sign language experts from the Universities of Leiden and Addis Ababa. In cooperation with local disability organizations, data-collectors were trained across the country to systematically identify and record regional signs. The recordings were analyzed with the support of sign language experts, selected together with local organizations and edited for the dictionary. Representatives of the deaf communities in South Sudan were at the heart of the sign language development process, as they are the experts of sign language practice and represent the local communities. The sign language project was strongly supported by the Ministry of Education’s department for Inclusive Education as well as the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare in South Sudan, which will officially launch the new dictionary together with Light for the World and disability organizations on December 1st, 2016, in Juba on the occasion of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The government will also present their new disability policy.

Further sign language development

Light for the World is working on an advanced edition with new signs representing further areas of life. In addition, master trainers for the new sign language will be trained in order to make the language known throughout the country and to facilitate the use of the language, especially in official situations, such as in education or for translation.