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Fostering local sign language and leadership

Expert international volunteer worker Kirk Van Gilder talks about the importance of fostering local sign language and leadership rather than imposing your own sign language.
Man is seated, signing to the camera.

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Image Description: Man is seated, signing to the camera.

Immersing in Local Sign Language

Transcript: “You might notice with the second point also, maybe you’d want to lead activities and have them look up to you as the expert and valued as a visitor, especially if the country was formally colonized. Resist letting them fawn over you as a visitor and let them lead, let them grow. It applies to time management and planning as well as the third point, language, too.

“The third point, language, it’s important to know that many Americans bring to another countries ASL (American Sign Language), thinking it’s comfortable and easy, without realizing that their sign language may be different. Sometimes it’s very different, it’s important to learn their sign language.

“My group would go to Kenya and we’d go to Zimbabwe. First we’d go and film, learn their signs, look for anything on the www (world wide web), for any videos that deaf people may have created and uploaded to the internet, and learn as much as possible their sign language. Learn and then you put away your ASL, immerse as much as possible. Meaning when you arrive, it’s important to set up socializing time with deaf people.

Fostering Local Sign Language and Leadership

“That’s the first step, socializing and learning, interacting and learning signs. If you have a plan, things you plan to preach, or lesson plans or others, you can ask them for the signs. Gather as much as you can from the local deaf community then you can adapt, be more clear, and improve your sign vocabulary in their sign language.

“Why is doing this important? It’s because when you bring ASL from America, it takes over and oppresses other people’s local sign language. You don’t want to do that. you’d want to empower the local leadership including deaf people’s culture and sign language.

“So the goal here is to put aside ASL and approach and socialize with people and encourage local sign language. It’s even more important when you’re interacting with hearing people in other countries. Specifically why? Because many times they’re learning sign language. They don’t know the concept, so they’d be asking what’s the sign for this or that. Refer them to the local deaf person. They know the local sign language.

Empowering Local Leadership

“We’re not using ASL. We do not need ASL. Let’s ask the people what the signs are. Introduce them and let them meet. Sometimes maybe you’re not fluent in their local sign language, and you’re trying to lead something, invite someone to team up with you. Be co-leaders. You do not only achieve communication in their sign language. You also empower the local experts and the local deaf leaders’ values. Then hearing people will look at them and say Oh! Our deaf people can do this and that too! This creates connections. Because when we fly home, they’re still there and they need to continue working together. They cannot depend on us. We return home.

Put Away Your ASL

“So the goal here is to learn and support the the language, the local language and leaders to be empowered, and to build up the relationship. Put away your ASL the best you can. I know it’s tough but I encourage you to learn their signs and immerse yourself with their sign language. It’s awesome!”

Expert international volunteer worker Kirk Van Gilder talks about the importance of fostering local sign language and leadership. Some U.S. volunteers import American Sign Language into other countries and cultures. This can result in oppressing local sign languages and leadership. Watch Kirk Van Gilder explaining why and how to support local sign language and leadership.

This video is in American Sign Language. A full transcript in English is also provided above. Meanwhile, this short video clip is taken from a longer, 30-minute webcast, “International Missionary Work: How we are walking on holy ground when entering deaf communities“. In the full-length webcast, Kirk Van Gilder shares many stories from his travels in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Turkey. During these stories, he provides guidance in how volunteers can help empower local Deaf communities.

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