Africa

Zimbabwe dictionary unifies rival sign languages

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Media captionLincoln Matongo demonstrates how the same words look completely different in the alternative languages.

A new unified sign language dictionary has gone on sale in Zimbabwe to end the confusion sometimes caused by the country's various signing dialects.

For example, the sign for "shoe" in the capital, Harare, means "pig" in the second city, Bulawayo.

And in Bulawayo, you say "good" by giving two thumbs up, but in Harare the sign is putting four fingers on top of the thumb.

Representatives from all of the country's provinces worked on the year-long project, bringing together the various dialects that have evolved.

Previous sign dictionaries had been rejected by Zimbabwe's deaf community as they were not compiled by deaf people.

Speaking in sign language using an interpreter, one of the compilers, Sindile Mhlanga, said this was a huge breakthrough for deaf people in Zimbabwe.

"Many people were not comfortable to use the old sign language dictionaries as the signs used in them are different to what is being used on the ground, but this dictionary was made for the deaf by the deaf," he said.

"An accurate dictionary is the key for good communication with deaf people, and it will empower us to communicate with others.

"We have situations where a boss will communicate with a deaf worker by writing notes on pieces of paper, that's disrespectful to us, and this dictionary will help to end this."

Other signs have been changed because of lack of cultural relevance.

The widely-used sign for "girl" imitates tugging a lock of long hair with the fingers, which is of US sign origin.

'Signs are universal'

But as many Zimbabwean women keep their hair short, the sign was replaced in Harare with one where the hands are put on the breasts.

Sign language is not linked to a spoken language, as the signs precede the words and in Zimbabwe the various dialects have generally evolved in schools for the deaf.

"A volunteer might come in from another country and add their knowledge to the local signs and that is where the confusion came from," says Samantha Nyereyemhuka from Bulawayo's King George VI Centre for the disabled, which led the production of the dictionary.

"A lot of the signs are universal, and we have had students going on trips overseas and they have been able to communicate with deaf people from places like Russia and England more easily than people who use words."

Official government figures say that there are around 20,000 deaf people in Zimbabwe, but those involved in this project believe that the figure is far higher.

Lincoln Matongo, one of those involved as a compiler in the project that has the approval of the government's education ministry, think it will empower deaf people.

"We hope that with this dictionary we will be able to be included fully in society," he says.

"When our leaders think about the deaf they talk about interpreters, but that means the interpreter is the one getting a job.

"So we hope that this sign language dictionary will help people from all walks of life to learn sign language and then the issue of interpreters will fade out."

With the completion of Zimbabwe's sign language dictionary, other countries in the region have now undertaken similar projects.

Lesotho has work on a dictionary in progress and Botswana and Mozambique have begun compiling theirs.

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