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Fingerspelling in Sinhala

16 Apr

So you’re interested in expanding your repertoire of fingerspelling alphabets from all over the world? You’ve come to the right place. Settle into your seat for your lesson in Sinhala Fingerspelling!

First, let’s open up your chart and guide to the Sinhala fingerspelling alphabet (click here).

Because Sinhala has more than twice as many letters as the Latin alphabet, the chart may look rather intimidating. Sinhala has 54 distinct letters (although in this alphabet, there are 56 signs, because there are two phonemes that aren’t exactly letters but are applied to other letters and so need to be fingerspelled nonetheless).

Many of them can be assembled into pairs with almost the same sound. This is why many of the signs are similar, but one of them has a twisting motion to show that it is just a little different (see Fig. 1).


Figure 1: Letter Pairs

If you’re familiar with the American Sign Language (ASL) fingerspelling alphabet, you will notice that whoever invented the Sinhala fingerspelling alphabet used ASL (or any of a dozen sign languages which use almost the same manual alphabet) as his or her inspiration.

And if you’re also familiar with Sinhala, you’ll see that the inventor of the Sinhala fingerspelling alphabet cleverly mapped most of the Sinhala sounds to the ASL handshapes and to the English letters represented in those handshapes.

For example, let’s look again at Figure 1 above. The left pair is the ASL handshape for the letter N–and that’s exactly the sound that the two Sinhala letters represent. The same is true for the right pair, which is the ASL handshape for B. Those two letters represent the sound “b.” This is how I managed to learn to write, read, and speak Sinhala so quickly!

However, there are differences between the Sinhala and ASL fingerspelling alphabets–some completely new handshapes, a couple switched around to make overall fingerspelling smoother. Still, if you know the ASL alphabet, you’ve already got a head start in the great race to learn Sinhala.

Now that we’ve deduced a probable explanation for the origin of the Sinhala fingerspelling alphabet, let’s start using it. What better word than “Sri Lanka” (Fig. 2), the only country in the world where Sinhala is widely spoken?


Figure 2: Sri Lanka

I’ve color-coded each separate letter so we can see that there are four letters which make up the Sinhala words “Sri Lanka.” But hey, there’s eight handshapes…for four letters!? What’s more, there’s several letters in the handshape graphics that don’t even appear in the Sinhala phrase! What’s going on here?

To understand how to fingerspell Sinhala, you have to understand how Sinhala works. In English, the lowercase letter “c” will always look like a “c,” no matter where in the word it appears, what other letters surround it, how it’s pronounced, whether it’s in “celery” or “cake.”

By contrast, Sinhala is a chameleon language. Each letter within a word actually represents a union between a consonant, a vowel (or a non-vowel symbol, meaning it’s just the consonant sound by itself), and occasionally, a third phoneme such as a “r” or “n” sound. In other words, a syllable.

Consonants–all the letters after the first twelve letters in the Sinhala fingerspelling chart–can change shape depending on what vowel is applied to it. Because there are 12 major vowels, a few minor vowels, a few phoneme modifiers, and about 40 consonants, we’re looking at potentially over 1,000 different shapes within the Sinhala script. For a small silver of this complexity, look at Fig. 3 below.


Figure 3: The Cornucopia of Sinhala

All of the colored letters are derived from just four basic consonant letters–K, M, D, and R. Imagine making a different handshape for each and every one of these. You can do it with any Latin alphabet because there are just about two dozen letters, and they won’t change shape when you’re not looking.

But with more than 1,000 potential letters in Sinhala, a 1:1 correspondence between the written letter and the fingerspelt letter is impossible.

Which is why the inventor of the Sinhala fingerspelling alphabet chose to create a system of fingerspelling to deal with the ever-changing sinuous curves of the Sinhala script. This system does one very important thing: it breaks down the union of consonants, vowels, and phonemes within each letter and presents each one as a distinct handshape.

This fingerspelling system requires that you understand how Sinhala consonants, vowels, and phonemes work together and mold into different shapes before you can begin to fingerspell accurately.

At the Rohana Special School, the primary classrooms are full of diagrams that detail exactly how vowels and consonants can combine and what shape a certain pair will make. There is a order to this phonetic osmosis; a specific vowel will generally have the same shapes no matter which consonant it is applied to. It’s not all that difficult to figure out how vowels and consonants work together, but even Grade 11 students get tripped up every now and then.

But the goal is for the students–and indeed, any scholar in a Sinhala-medium school–to understand what consonants, vowels, and phonemes make up a certain letter. For Rohana students, it’s critical to understand this so they can fingerspell it properly. I’ve reproduced and modified a common chart from school here–see Fig. 4 below.


Figure 4: Fingerspelling the different forms of kayanna.

An added bonus is that, because Sinhala has a pure phonetic script (meaning that a letter will always sound a certain way and nothing else, unlike the notoriously fickle English language), knowing the breakdown of each letter can reveal to a deaf student how exactly to pronounce the word.

So speech therapy becomes easier and more focused on understanding how to voice each phoneme and string them together properly instead of pointing out in every word whether the “c” is hard or soft, or if the “e” is silent.

That said, don’t think too hard about the English transliterations of the Sinhala letters–these are just approximations (after all, English has five vowels but Sinhala has 12) and the best way to accurately reproduce Sinhala vowels is to listen or lipread a native Sinhala speaker.

Hopefully, by studying Figure 4 above, you now understand how letters are actually representations of syllables with vowels, consonants, and phonemes contained within it, and why more than one handshape is needed to denote each letter. Indeed, instead of the 1:1 letter-handshape ratio found in the English fingerspelling alphabet, Sinhala’s fingerspelled alphabet has a 1:1 phoneme-handshape ratio.

Now let’s go back to “Sri Lanka”–see Figure 5 below (which incorporates the colors of Sri Lanka’s flag!).


Figure 5: Fingerspelling “Sri Lanka”

Here, I’ve broken down the four letters to reveal the vowels, consonants, and phonemes behind each one. Each individual phoneme unit has a handshape representing it, and because there are ultimately eight phonemes that create the Sinhala word “Sri Lanka,” the fingerspelt form must also have eight handshapes.

Now, doesn’t it make total sense why eight handshapes are needed to spell a four-letter word?

I’d delve into the finer points of how one could know the individual phonemes, but that’s approaching learning how to write and learn Sinhala, and is a different subject altogether.

You may wonder how the heck anybody can learn a system like this, and if you do, it’s because you don’t know Sinhala. I feel confident that people fluent in Sinhala can pick up this fingerspelling alphabet and its system within a day or two because they understand it–just like American English speakers can learn the ASL alphabet within a day. In fact, my students sometimes attempt to make different handshapes for uppercase English letters vs. lowercase letters–after all, it looks different, and from a Sinhala perspective, therefore should sound differently, so why shouldn’t it have another handshape?

What I’ve tried to convey here (without completely losing you in the process) is that even the benign world of fingerspelling alphabets can be deviously complex. The Sinhala fingerspelling scheme is a system, and consequently, each pupil in this subject needs to be trained in it. Because they are spelling things that are not readily evident in the script, many Rohana secondary students make mistakes when fingerspelling words–not spelling errors but conceptual errors resulting from not fully understanding the system.

Fortunately, fingerspelling instruction is a firmly entrenched subject in the primary classrooms (I have even personally taught a couple fingerspelling training sessions in Grade 5!), so this situation should improve. Fingerspelling instruction has also created a generational gap because anyone above 30 years old doesn’t know how fingerspell in Sinhala. This system, after all, did not exist back when they were in school!

Because several deaf schools still haven’t incorporated Sinhala fingerspelling into their curriculum, it has also created an education gap within current deaf pupils all across the country. For example, at the deaf school in Tangalle one hour east, the students don’t know how to fingerspell in Sinhala. I believe it seriously impedes the development of written literacy in signing educational environments if students cannot access Sinhala vocabulary via their hands, their visual communication medium.

I can think of no reason why the Sinhala fingerspelling alphabet should not be taught (except maybe for a misguided wish by school administrators to leave Sinhala behind and encourage greater embrace of English, a deeply contentious issue among Sri Lankan education circles). There is nothing wrong with its complexity; the system meets the demands of the written script it is meant to represent.

Learning this fingerspelling system and thus, Sinhala itself, and delighting my students by showing off my newfound abilities to communicate in their native written language, has been one of the greatest pleasures of my ongoing experience here. I must to express my great admiration for how the inventor of the Sinhala fingerspelling alphabet, by choosing to use handshapes to represent phonemes instead of letters, created what sounds greatly paradoxical: a purely phonetic, silent language!

It’s April!

5 Apr

Yesterday was the last day of the first term. Everyone was excited to go home because, as David says, “April is like Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter all rolled into one.” Last Monday was a poya holiday; Friday is Good Friday, and 13-14 April is the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year. And I’m pretty sure that there is another holiday or two in there somewhere, but I can’t remember.

The last day of school was supposed to be Friday, 30 March, but just a few days before that, Mr. A announced it was now Wednesday, 4 April. Changing dates at the last minute appears to be the norm here (see a blog from last December or so), but the principal had a good rationale this time.

He wanted to have a parents’ meeting where the parents actually showed up–but if it was on Friday 30 March, the parents would be going to their other children’s schools’ parents’ meetings (as almost all goverment schools in Sri Lanka begin and end on the same dates). Not the deaf school’s meeting because, well, that can’t be just as important as a normal school’s meeting, right?

So Mr. A moved it to Wednesday so the parents wouldn’t have an excuse not to show up (although if they didn’t come, they probably wouldn’t have to explain themselves anyway). He told Ginette and me that he wasn’t expecting more than 20 or 30 to come. Imagine our surprise when about 80 showed up for the meeting which lasted nearly two hours. At the end of the meeting, a near-riot broke out when it was time to collect the 50 beautifully-laminated calendars that Ginette and I had produced–also incorporating 18 basic signs and the Sinhala fingerspelling alphabet. The Sinhalese love their calendars–many homes will have two, three, or four calendars hanging on the walls in every room.

So now we have to print out about 30 more to give to the parents who didn’t get one when they drop their kids off back at school on 23 April. Another success! We both can’t wait to see if the kids report whether their families have learned a few signs from the calendar during the April break.

And now for your viewing pleasure (and also in homage to the Sri Lanka cricket team’s current bid for the 2007 ICC World Cup trophy in the West Indies), a video I made of the boys’ cricket tournament last January.

Incidentally, I think the calendar and the video below both represent the first time ever that Sinhala Sign Language has been shown on the internet. Enjoy!

Your Input Requested

22 Mar

Two months ago, the headmistress of the Brilliant Stars International College strolled onto the Rohana campus, looking for anyone to talk to. I was the first person she found, and over the next hour, she shared her challenge with me.

She had a deaf girl, Amra, who was seven years old and had been enrolled in her school. The headmistress wanted to help her succeed, but wasn’t sure how. “Perhaps some helping points?” she asked.

Two months and fifteen pages later, here is my answer. Only, I want your input first before I give it to her.

As I describe almost immediately in the document, all of what I have typed are based on my own experience as a mainstreamed child from fifth to twelfth grade (and to a much lesser extent, throughout college, too). I’m sure some of you will have some interesting ideas to add, or maybe find a point which I have made that you disagree with. Whatever it is, please let me know (and soon, please)! I have also tried to present the information in a culturally sensitive context, but simultaneously sending the subtle message to not let cultural nuances get into the way of her education.

You may download the document here. (MS Word) Enjoy!

The Sinhalese of Reason

16 Mar

This is the story of Kasun, a young boy who lived in one of the many villages which dot Sri Lanka’s splendid coastline, and how he came to attend a special school. As Karma would have it–perhaps retribution for bad deeds caused in a past life such as the killing of animals, the stealing of things, the sexual infidelities, the telling of lies, or the drinking of alcohol, all of which are strictly prohibited according to the daily Buddhist prayers–he was born deaf.

For more than ten years, he grew up in his village without meaningful access to language. Despite the hardships of being unable to hear–or perhaps in spite of it–Kasun learned the art of tenacity and became a popular boy among his peers, taking charge of pick-up cricket matches or foot races.

Then the waves came and washed away Kasun’s village. Dozens of people he knew lay dead, half-buried in the sands along with flip-flops, clothes, and toys. He was moved to a tsunami village high atop a hill a few kilometers east of Dondra, where a white lighthouse marks Sri Lanka’s southmost point.

For two years his family would live in a makeshift home that almost any tsunami survivor will be familiar with–a small plot of flat concrete with corrugated metal forming the walls and roof, with an interior wall or two forming two rooms. Many families would add a third room–an exterior kitchen–in the following months, not to simply have more space, but because they had wood-fire stoves and it was always safer to keep those away from the main dwelling, something many NGO-employed house planners failed to realize.

Thousands of people continue to live in homes like this today, nearly two years and three months after the waves came.

In the months immediately following the tsunami, Kasun and his forever-changed village were visited by one NGO volunteer after another, delivering clothes, rice, toys, shoes, playground equipment, art supplies, home decorations, and more as victims’ needs slowly transformed from food and shelter to more intangible emotional needs such as security, well-being, and self-importance.

The boy caught one of these volunteers’ eyes, Heather. Even as she worked to help hundreds of victims in several camps between Kalutara and Tangalla, and set up a women’s bag-making workshop to distribute “Suba Ude”-branded bags worldwide, she never forgot that deaf boy living in that tsunami camp a few kilometers east of Dondra.

And so when Heather returned to Sri Lanka last December, she would ask a volunteer at the deaf school in nearby Matara if he could help Kasun–by then, twelve, and just mastering the art of copying meaningless Sinhalese characters and Arabic numerals in his exercise books at Gandara Maha Kanitu Viduhala in Kudawella–change schools and have a real chance at changing the world.

This volunteer, named Adam, was not the best project manager in the South. He had been asked to do many things, such as teach weekly English workshops for the deaf association, create a VCD of videos taken of the school children, train deaf people in using computers, write a guide for mainstreaming deaf children in international English-medium schools, directing and publishing a sign language dictionary, programming a school website, or spearheading the creation of a deaf festival on the school grounds.

Some he would flatly decline, some he would plainly forget, other projects he would delay until the next school holiday when there was more time, and others he incorporated into his daily schedule–always in the afternoons because the early mornings until 2:00 PM daily on weekdays were always reserved for the school–Monday, teach Lakmal English, Tuesday, practice yoga with the children, Wednesday, teach Amila, Lakmal, and Ajith computer skills, and Friday, more yoga practice.

However, when Heather took Adam and Akalanka, a bubbly Sinhala-English translator who was a biochemistry–or something like it–major at University of Colombo, to Kasun’s village, that one a few kilometers east of Dondra, Adam was moved by the sight of a deaf boy–barely a teenager–with far more courage than his peers as he led white (!!) people around his ad hoc home and village, but lacking any external language whatsoever.

To test his faculties, he signed fluently in Sinhala to Kasun. Kasun attempted to mime his signs and nod in feigned understanding; to the hearing person, it would appear that Kasun understood everything, but to the deaf person–or at least one steeped in sign language–it was like talking into a mirror whose reflection moved a little slower, a little more tentatively.

And when Adam read his exercise books, he noticed the same mirror quality; Kasun had become an expert at copying Sinhalese words over and over by pencil. However, he could not identify one character or word–and of course, how could he? He wasn’t told what the difference between a kayanna and a iayanna was, or what mala and gasa meant.

So when it was time for Heather to leave, Adam swore that Kasun was one ball, one project he would not drop. Kasun was a special boy, and only a special school would do. And what better than the Rohana Special School, which was slowly becoming the best special school in Sri Lanka?

The following ensued: Heather left. Akalanka takes on the role of acting as intermediary, translator, and relay services for the deaf operator between Adam and Kasun’s family. Adam asks van driver to go up the hill to village. Van driver refuses; hill is too high. Kasun’s mother refuses to let Kasun walk down hill. Kasun’s aunt cannot walk Kasun down the hill; she is too frail. Adam offers van driver more cash. Van driver says okay. A start date is arranged. Van arrives. Kasun refuses to go into van; he is scared. Entire plan is scrapped. Two weeks pass. Adam asks Kasun’s mother if she will try again; this time, Adam will personally be there to help Kasun get into the van to school. Kasun’s mother says okay. Adam approaches the Rohana principal for permission. The Rohana principal says a birth certificate is needed to enroll Kasun in the special school. Adam asks Kasun’s mother for birth certificate. Kasun’s mother goes to the principal of Kasun’s current school to ask for birth certificate. Principal refuses to give Kasun’s mother the certificate. Adam is shocked. Adam asks for the name of the school. Kasun’s mother gives it. Adam gives the name to the Rohana principal and asks if the phone number could be found from some government dictionary. A few days later, the Rohana principal says the phone number could not be found. Adam asks Kasun’s mother to go back to the school and find out the phone number. Kasun’s mother reports that the school has no telephone, and thus, no phone number. The principal of the current school says Kasun can transfer, but he can never come back to his old school. Adam is concerned about this because he wants Kasun to have a safety net should the transfer to Rohana ultimately fail. Adam asks the Rohana principal if it is okay to admit Kasun knowing that he can never go back to his old school. The Rohana principal says what the other principal says is illegal, but not to worry about it. Success! Adam asks Akalanka to contact van driver. Can he pick up Kasun at the top of the hill every day at 6:30 AM for Rs. 1300/= per month? Akalanka confirms this. Adam tells Kasun’s mother to prepare Kasun for his first day of school at Rohana. Adam buys eight new exercise books, six new pens, three new pencils, two erasers, a compass and protractor, and a pencil case. Adam and Ginette–the new New Zealander volunteer with a knack for rapid-firing transformative ideas and disarming hostile hostel matrons–get into a three-wheeler on Monday morning at 5:30 AM. They buy 12 fish buns for Kasun’s family. They arrive at Kasun’s village at 6:15. Kasun’s family has moved into a brand-new home. There appears to be 15 people living in a two-room house. They drink tea. Kasun, Kasun’s mother, Adam, and Ginette sit outside anticipating the van at 6:30. 6:50 and the van still has not arrived. The four of them pile into a different three-wheeler and ride the 10 kilometers to school. Kasun is very shy and will not leave his mother’s or Adam’s side. The van driver is also at the school. Ginette and Kasun’s mother talk to van driver. Van driver says he cannot pick up Kasun at all; he has no time in the morning to add another student. None of them have any idea how to find another van driver. The Rohana principal is not there; the vice-principal is unsurprisingly unhelpful. The teachers are wary of accepting an almost-13-year-old student with nonexistent language skills. “He cannot learn,” they say. Finally, Kasun is placed in Grade 1. Kasun’s mother says she is waiting for the government to issue a new birth certificate because the principal of the old school will not hand it over, and the vice-principal says it is okay to have Kasun in the school for now. Kasun attends class, but he keeps walking outside to find his mother who is sitting outside nearby. Kasun learns how to sign the first four letters of the Sinhalese alphabet. Adam leaves Kasun to his work and approaches the mother again. Mother speaks, but Adam cannot understand her. Damayanthi. the girls’ head matron, comes over to interpret. They discuss the van driver. Soon, Adam realizes that the van driver has no time to pick up Kasun because he doesn’t want to go up the hill. Adam asks Kasun’s mother if one of the village boys can walk Kasun down the hill. The mother says yes, and calls the van driver to confirm. Van driver says he will pick up Kasun daily at the bottom of the hill. Kasun looks overwhelmed by the four letters. Adam takes Kasun outside to play on the swings and teaches him the signs for tree, grass, rock, flower, motorbike, bicycle, car, school. Kasun drinks it all up. Kasun returns to class feeling refreshed. Adam talks to Kasun’s mother some more, with Damayanthi interpreting, and teaches her about ten signs. They discuss how the van driver will be paid; Kasun’s mother will pay Rs. 300/= per month, while Adam (via Heather) will put in Rs. 1000/= per month. Kasun has no shoes, and the Grade 1 teacher says Kasun needs more school supplies, so Adam gives her a 1000-rupee bill to buy shoes and supplies. Grade 1 and 2 ends at 11:30, and Kasun and his mother leave school by public bus. Tuesday morning, Adam stands with the students, worrying if Kasun will show up by van. Van pulls up and lets out Pubodha, Yeshanthi, Dilupi, and finally, Kasun. He is wearing a pair of brand-new black shoes. The Rohana principal is here. He says Kasun’s mother absolutely needs to give the birth certificate to him before Kasun can keep attending school. Adam does not want Kasun to skip Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday just because the birth certificate is a little late. Suddenly, Kasun’s mother shows up, with birth certificate in hand that she has managed to extract from the old school principal’s selfish hands. Kasun’s name and admission number is immediately entered into the Grade 1 attendance book. Kasun is now the newest student of the Rohana Special School. Kasun learns three more letters, and a few more signs. His learning continues unabated. He plays carom with Damith later that day, and makes his first friends.

Is it perhaps poetic that in the very same week Kasun began school, the Rohana community saw off its very first alumna to attend university? Samantha graduated from Rohana a few years ago, and passed her O/L’s and A/L’s with enough qualifying marks to attend teacher’s college for two years. Two years ago, she became the first and only deaf teacher at the school. And in that week in March, Samantha bid farewell to her community to attend the University of Colombo, studying both demography and Sinhala. It was a difficult farewell for everybody, perhaps most for Mr. Abeygunawardana, the principal, who saw Samantha like a daughter and was moved to tears as he pondered the stupefying, stunning achievement–university!!–of one of his pupils.

The Rohana Special School is nearly fourty years old. Thousands have walked into and out of its gates, like any other school, but there is one difference. Special things happen there. Special stories have their beginnings, middles, and ends within the four walls that enclose the campus. Families find their miracles, and students find their inner voices. Volunteers find their altruism well-rewarded, and donors find their investments multiplied thousandfold.

It is a special place–in all the meanings of that word. And Kasun and Samantha, at opposite but equal ends of their education life-cycles, both know it.