India to Get Its First Sign Language Dictionary

The government's Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre will launch a sign language dictionary next month

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The sign for the number four

India will soon launch its first Indian Sign Language (ISL) dictionary in March. The Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC), an autonomous body under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, has so far compiled 7,000 English and Hindi everyday use, legal, medical, technical and academic terms. A team of 15 is working hard on creating graphical representations of both country-wide and regional signs. There is a need for a wide variety of signs to accommodate India’s diverse cultures. Andesha Mangla, an assistant professor at ISLRTC, told Indian Express, “In India, depending on the region it is shown either by bringing the index finger to the centre of the forehead or side of the nose to indicate bindi or nose-ring.”

According to the latest Census (2011), there are 50 lakh deaf and 20 lakh mute people in the country. This dictionary is expected to serve as the common language and bridge the communication gap between both hearing-impaired and non-disabled people.

Researchers at the ISLRTC include both hearing impaired and non-disabled people; they all communicate through sign language. One of the researchers, Islam Ul Haq, a master trainer in sign language, and born deaf, told the BBC that standardisation of signs is essential in a diverse nation like India.”If you make the “crossing arms with clenched fists” sign, in some parts of southern India, it denotes ‘marriage’ whereas in some northern regions it signifies ‘jail’,” says Haq.

Hands showing the sign language alphabet. Coloured etching.
Hands showing the sign language alphabet. Coloured etching.

British and American sign language dictionaries are important reference points for these researchers but there is a need to adapt these signs to India’s own cultural contexts. For instance, the sign for “Tea” in the US would be dipping a tea bag in a cup. But in India, you would have to mimic the action of drinking tea from a cup and saucer–a common practice of tea-drinkers in the country.

India is in dire need of sign language trainers in India. There are only 300 sign language interpreters in the entire country with 15 lakh deaf school-going children. The literacy rate among the disabled is the lowest for the hearing-impaired. They are also less likely to receive a full education and benefit from government quotas. A Ministry official told the Indian Express, “Our aim is that each and every school should have at least one teacher who knows the sign language”.

In 1980, Madan Vasishta, compiled a few hundred signs in his book ‘An Introduction to Indian Sign Languages’. Twenty years later, the Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University released a sign language dictionary for 1,600 words. The ISRTC’s dictionary, which is expected to contain 7,000 words from a diverse range of topics, is expected to be the largest.