Standardization and Language Attitudes in the Iranian Deaf Community

By Sara Siyavoshi
Submitted to Session P4743 (Examining Sign Language Education in the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East; Iran;
Education; Minorities; Modernization; Pedagogy; Public Policy;
LCD Projector without Audio;
There are divergent viewpoints within the Iranian Deaf community regarding the prioritization of available systems of communication: natural sign language (ZEI, or Iranian sign language), standard sign system, Farsi, and signed Farsi. Social factors, including education background, are important in this regard because identities are associated with signing styles. The process of language standardization also influences individual and group attitudes toward language varieties. In the case of ZEI, there has been a standardization process for almost four decades that has had a multifaceted impact on language attitudes in the deaf community. Standardization has taken place in two levels, lexicon and structure, which will be discussed in this paper.

In the history of deaf education in Iran, there has always been great pressure to limit ZEI as a medium of instruction and formal communication and to replace it with either Farsi lip reading or manually coded Farsi or a combination of the two. The general avoidance or suppression of ZEI by educators and administrators has sent a message to deaf and hard-of-hearing students that Farsi is better than ZEI and Farsi in the written and oral forms opened the way for them to succeed in society. Thus, in the course of standardization, ZEI has taken on more Farsi structures. In this process, manual signs have been invented for all prepositions and conjunctions that do not exist in natural ZEI. Fewer facial markers are also considered more standard and thus more prestigious. On the lexicon level, selecting one sign out of all dialectal or regional signs, replacing less iconic signs with more iconic ones, replacing ZEI signs by ASL signs are among the policies adopted by the standardization trend over the past decades. As a result, two systems now exist in parallel, the one used in everyday communication, the other reserved for formal situations.
I will examine how deaf and hard-of-hearing children and adults internalized the negative thinking about ZEI throughput decades and, even though their natural way of daily communication is via this language, they believe a signed Farsi system is the “correct” form of language, and how Deaf youth and linguists have recently begun challenging the notion of ZEI as “improper” language, and instead expanding and empowering the natural ZEI with all its variations.