Where Sign Language Studies Has Led Us in Forty Years: Opening High School and University Education for Deaf People in Viet Nam through Sign Language Analysis, Teaching, and Interpretation

Article excerpt


This paper discusses how the Nippon Foundation-funded project "Opening University Education to Deaf People in Viet Nam through Sign Language Analysis, Teaching, and Interpretation," also known as the Dong Nai Deaf Education Project, has been implemented through sign language studies from 2000 through 2012. This project has provided deaf adults in Viet Nam with their first opportunity for higher educational programs (junior high school, senior high school, and university). Major topics for discussion include the impact of the project, the high level of success of the project, and how the findings of sign language studies have been specifically utilized to ensure the success of the project.

First Author's Preface

I suppose you could say I was present when Sign Language Studies was born forty years ago. I was working with Bill Stokoe at the Linguistics Research Lab at Gallaudet College when my article "Implications for Sociolinguistic Research among the Deaf" appeared on pages 1-7 of the first issue of Sign Language Studies. Just like the journal, I am still around forty years later and still involved in sign language studies. However, when the first issue of Sign Language Studies was published in late 1972, the world I lived in was very different from the world I live in today. The United States and Viet Nam were at war. I was working at Gallaudet to avoid this war teaching Deaf students at the university level.

Viet Nam was still partitioned into two "countries," North Viet Nam and South Viet Nam. In 1972 in South Viet Nam there was only one school for deaf people, which provided education up to the fifth grade to less than half of 1 percent of the deaf population in South Viet Nam. In 1972 in North Viet Nam there was no school for deaf people, so practically none of the deaf people in North Viet Nam had had any access to formal education at that time.

If someone had told me in 1972 that I was going to move to Viet Nam, use sign language studies to help cofound the first high school and university program for Deaf people there, and end up writing an article about the program for the fortieth anniversary issue of Sign Language Studies, I am not sure what I would have said, but I certainly would have thought that person had to have dropped some really weird acid. It is still a bit strange to think about it after it has happened because sign language studies led me down some very convoluted but necessary roads on my way to Viet Nam.

After Sign Language Studies 1 was published, I worked for twenty more years at Gallaudet, where sign language studies led me to France, Providence Island, India, and Costa Rica.

In 1992 I decided for personal reasons to move to Asia, and for a while I seriously thought that perhaps it was time for sign language studies and me to part company since I was hired to teach phonology and sociolinguistics to hearing students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). For a number of complex reasons, sign language studies and I did not part ways, and I ended up coproposing a project called the Asia-Pacific Sign Languages and Deaf Studies Research and Training Program. While at CUHK, sign language studies then led me to a conference in the Philippines, where I made contact with Ratchasuda College, Thailand, and the Ministry of Education in Viet Nam.

Because there was no available funding to provide support to the sign linguistics and Deaf studies training program at CUHK, when Ratchasuda College offered me a position as director of research in 1995, I moved to Thailand. Later I was local project director for the World Deaf Leadership (WDL) Thailand Project funded by the Nippon Foundation through a grant to Gallaudet University.

Toward the end of the Thai WDL project I was invited to Viet Nam by the contacts I had made in the Vietnamese Ministry of Education during the conference in the Philippines. This was in 1996, one year after the United States had renormalized its diplomatic relations with Viet Nam after twenty years of economic sanctions. …


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