Pakistan Sign Language: Conceptualization, Curriculum and Cultural Impact

By Sanaa Riaz
Submitted to Session P4743 (Examining Sign Language Education in the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
Education; Language Acquisition; Middle East/Near East Studies; Sociolinguistics;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In a 30 second video sponsored by the Family Education Services Foundation, an NGO that advocates for Deaf Community rights, Shahid Afridi, superstar Pakistani cricketer, signs: "Don't say it, sign it!” Pakistan Sign Language (PSL), including more than 5000 signs, reaches out to over 10,000 members of the Deaf community through celebrity promotions, DVDs, apps, and fun children’s stories. The story of PSL awareness in Pakistan was not so optimistic not too long ago. In this paper, I will look at the development of PSL, its grammatical nuances, and the cultural impact of teaching using PSL as the medium of instruction at Deaf non-profit schools in Pakistan.

Close to 1.25 million children in Pakistan belong to the Deaf community. However, less than 2% of them attend school. After the establishment of Pakistan in 1947, Indo-Pakistan Sign Language (IPSL) or the urban Indian Sign Language register continued to represent Urdu, one of the northern Indian languages spoken. However, while Urdu became the national language of Pakistan, it represented only 7% of the population. The ideology of orality in the country, advocating spoken language as superior to sign language and forcing signers to mimic verbal language structure, further led to IPSL not representing the linguistic and cultural diversity of Pakistan. By the 1980s, the IPSL curriculum became outdated and went out of print. Not only did it remain limited for the needs of Deaf community members across diverse social contexts, but it could also not reconcile Pushto, Sindhi, Punjabi, and Balochi sign language varieties representing Pakistan’s four provinces. It is against this backdrop that I examine how PSL curriculum has been conceived by volunteer teachers, interpreters, and linguists with a focus on PSL semantics, in particular, iconic signs (where signs represent their meanings), compound signs (signs representing two signs), and initialized signs (when typically the finger-spelled first letter of a word is the handshape of a sign) and how PSL borrows from Urdu, BSL (British Sign Language), which was influential in the early stages of sign education in the country, and ASL (American Sign Language). I will conclude with reflections on how the new culture of PSL-based education at Deaf schools is transforming home cultures for hearing families of the Deaf community in Pakistan.