Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

The Cultural Construction of Linguistic Incompetence through Schooling: Deaf Education and the Transformation of the Linguistic Environment in Bali, Indonesia

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

The Cultural Construction of Linguistic Incompetence through Schooling: Deaf Education and the Transformation of the Linguistic Environment in Bali, Indonesia

Article excerpt

WE ARE TRAVELING DOWN A BROAD, tree-lined street in north Bali, Indonesia, past old houses built in the Dutch colonial style, past handcarts selling flavored ice or soup. Small vans hell bent on collecting as many passengers as possible are passing us while also breaking speed limits.1 We turn left down a steep, narrow street and spot a large sign that says SLB Bagian B.2 Students ranging from kindergarten age to late secondary school, dressed in neat white shirts and blue or gray shorts or skirts, are pouring out of the ajrawd (boardinghouse) to our left, spilling across the road and into the maze of one-story school buildings. Their faces are lively as their hands fly, signing jokes or abuse, teasing, and dealing with the mundane realities of everyday life. Their signing is fluid, seamless. Sounds ring out as some occasionally voice words or simply utter sounds of joy, disgust, or laughter, but the communicative process is entirely signed.

The students greet us enthusiastically, and they find our signing a source of interest and mirth. We wait patiently while they disappear into the buildings and then move unobtrusively from class to class. In one room an articulation teacher sits with a small group of eight-year-olds. One young boy sits very near the teacher, attempting to copy her in the voicing of vowels. The others sign to one another as they await their turn. In another room a group of senior students is facing the front of the class as a teacher writes notes on the board about religion and occasionally turns and speaks to the class with exaggerated mouth movements. In another room a teacher is speaking slowly and signing at the same time as he conducts a math lesson. And in yet another a teacher speaks, occasionally using a sign or fingerspelling while talking. In all of the classes the students sign to each other when the teacher is not looking. All of the teachers' speech and all of the articulation training is in the national language, Indonesian.

Eighteen-year-old Ketut has just left the school and returned to his village twenty kilometers away in the foothills of the mountains. He can read and write Indonesian but only very poorly. He articulates to a degree if required to do so and always in Indonesian. He was able to lipread the Indonesian of some of his teachers but finds other people difficult or impossible to understand. He is fluent in the sign language of the school. In his village, however, Indonesian is never used in community activities, only in dealings with government officials. Everyone speaks Balinese. Two other deaf people live in his village, but he has no contact with them. They are not part of his ritual community, and shared deafness is not seen as a basis for association. His family and neighbors sign to him, using the signs he learned with them before he left for school. Nobody uses the school's sign language. Neighbors ask Ketut what he learned at school. Wanting him to show his skills, they ask whether he can speak. When they talk without signing, he tries to read their lips, but they are not using Indonesian.

In a nearby village Nyoman, who has also left the school, sits in her home, lipreading her mother's Indonesian and responding with speech that her mother understands. They do not sign. Years ago, when Nyoman went deaf as a result of a fever, a teacher from the school told her mother not to sign to her. Nyoman cannot participate in community conversations in Balinese but only in one-to-one discussions in Indonesian. Even then, people must make an effort to articulate clearly so that she can lipread and they must try to understand her high-pitched monotone speech. She rarely sees any of her former school friends.

Farther into the hills Made sits making baskets that he sells in local markets. He is fifty years old and has never been to school. He can read a little and write with difficulty, skills he has learned at home and in the markets. He can lipread Balinese with some success but communicates mostly by signing. …

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