Language Development among the Deaf in a remote village in PNG

In the Oro province of Papua New Guinea in the foothills of Mt. Avejaha is a community in which a number of Deaf children have been born during the last 20 years. SIL's Global Sign Language Team staff member, Nathalie Juhonewe, was contacted by a missionary who has spent more than 40 years in this region and was invited to come for a visit. Nathalie is a Deaf woman from Sweden. She and her husband, who is a Deaf man from Papua New Guinea, are doing language survey and development work among the Deaf in Papua New Guinea. The news of this remote village with a relatively large number of Deaf villagers filled Nathalie with questions about the quality of life that these Deaf children were experiencing. Were they loved or neglected by their parents? Could they communicate with their parents or with other Deaf in the village? Did the rest of the village welcome them or reject them?

When Nathalie arrived, she was greeted by a huge crowd at the airfield closest to the village. It become immediately evident that the villagers were not put off by her deafness. She had become accustomed to shocked reactions from many people when they realized that she was Deaf, but that was not the case among these villagers. Many of them began immediately to communicate with her using body language which made it clear to her that they were accustomed to interacting with Deaf people.

The hike from the airfield to the village took about an hour. All along the way Nathalie was greeted by men and women with their bodies covered with beads made from shells, job's tears and wild bananas and wearing headdresses made out of colorful feathers from the birds of the forests. They sang and danced all the way up to the village.

Upon arrival a huge meal awaited her in the community house. During the meal Nathalie spotted a boy, who appeared to be about 8 years old, signing something to the other children with whom he was playing. The signs he used were not familiar to Nathalie who uses Swedish Sign Language as well as Papua New Guinea Sign Language. She was introduced to the boy and learned that his brother was also Deaf.  Before long she was approached by a number of other people who also began signing in a sign language that she had never seen before. It was totally different from the sign language used by the other Deaf communities in PNG. This community was completely isolated and had developed their own sign language adapted to the village life of Mount Avejaha without any outside contact. Their sign language had no alphabet and no signs for days or months, but it was fully adequate for their everyday life and they communicated easily with each other. Within two days Nathalie began to understand the linguistic patterns and started signing with them in their sign language. These initial attempts to use their language resulted in much shared laughter.

It was evident that the Deaf village members were accepted and loved by the other villagers. They did not appear to be treated badly as has unfortunately been the case in other parts of the country and the rest of the world. In fact, quite the opposite was true here. The village was concerned because their Deaf children were not succeeding in school. The closest Deaf school is 100 kilometers away and there was no road connecting it to the village. Sending the Deaf children there was not an option. While the teachers in the village were attempting to educate the Deaf children, they ran into obstacles that they didn't know how to overcome. The sign language developed by the villagers didn't contain any alphabet and the teachers didn't know how to explain letters to the children. Nathalie was able to teach the teachers and the Deaf the fingerspelled alphabet that is used in the national sign language of PNG. After a couple of hours of practice everyone was able to fingerspell, resulting in a first big step towards learning to read and write!
















Nathalie shows "Elias' Adventures", a Swedish series about a 3-year old deaf boy who goes out on adventures with his deaf father. It was much appreciated by both children and adults in Mt. Avejaha. They realized there are deaf people in other places too, and they saw that Elias already had begun to learn to write.

Read more about sign languages.