Emergence of signed language in Tajikistan

My dissertation project investigates how the linguistic ecology—that is, the pool of linguistic and communicative features available in a community (Mufwene 2001, 2008; Pagel 2015)—has influenced the development of Tajik Sign Language. What were the contributions of Russian Sign Language, which was brought to Dushanbe, Tajikistan in the 1940s by hearing Soviet educators who established the deaf education system? And, how have indigenous communication systems contributed to TSL? Specifically, this set of research questions aims to better understand how a new language emerged in the Leninsky school for the deaf in the early 1940s, and how this new language fits within the linguistic ecology of deaf Tajik signers today.

I collected language data in three cities in Tajikistan during two separate field visits, supported by a Fulbright student grant, a UT International Office Global Research Fellowship, and a John F. Richards Research Fellowship from the American Institute for Afghanistan Studies. In total, I collected more than 80 hours of video with 38 deaf Tajik participants, including interviews and language elicitation tasks, which targeted participants’ vocabulary, basic grammatical features, and short narratives. Throughout the project, I collaborated with members of the Tajik deaf community and consulted with the national deaf organization, the Tajik Society of the Deaf. Two native-signing deaf interviewers and I conducted the interviews and elicitation sessions together. In addition, I trained two deaf Tajik signers in the use of software for translating and annotating the videos we collected, a process which is ongoing.

The analysis takes a comparative approach (i) to identify features of signed language in Tajikistan which differ from Russian Sign Language (RSL); and (ii) to compare signers from various linguistic and educational backgrounds in three Tajik cities so as to identify indigenous features of signed language in Tajikistan. For the comparisons, I use computational techniques to measure similarity across participants’ linguistic features. For example, for the comparison of vocabulary, signs are transcribed using a system for writing signed languages (Hanke 2004). These transcriptions are compared computationally using methods for determining similarity and for inferring evolutionary history. Many of these methods, which originated in biology and historical linguistics, are commonly used by scholars to investigate the histories of spoken languages and speech communities, but they are novel in the study of signed languages.

The results of these comparisons, together with information about participants’ geographic, linguistic, and educational backgrounds, are used to infer details about the development of TSL and its spread to other communities. Preliminary results indicate that RSL has had a strong influence on the vocabulary of Tajik signers in Dushanbe who attended a school for the deaf, and on the vocabulary of signers from other parts of Tajikistan who attended a school for the deaf and later returned home. In this way, RSL vocabulary, via Tajik signers, has contributed to the linguistic ecologies of other deaf signing communities. However, because most deaf Tajiks outside of Dushanbe have not attended a school for the deaf, RSL vocabulary either coexists with indigenous vocabulary, or is unknown. The vocabulary of several participants outside of Dushanbe is completely indigenous, with no influence of RSL detectable according to the methods used in this research. In contrast, most signers in Dushanbe who have attended a school for the deaf are familiar with some indigenous vocabulary.

The influence of RSL grammar is not as pronounced as that of RSL vocabulary. Even Tajik signers in Dushanbe who have attended a school for the deaf differ in many features compared to RSL. While the grammatical analysis is ongoing, the overall picture that emerges confirms previous research on first language acquisition and emerging signed languages. Deaf children exposed to Signed English (Supalla 1990) and to the signed language of late learners (Singleton & Newport 2004) acquire vocabulary but create different, more complex grammars. In Nicaragua, contact amongst deaf children led to the rapid emergence and complexification of grammar across successive school cohorts (Kegl et al 2001, Senghas et al 2004). I conclude that, in Tajikistan, the hearing teachers’ non-native RSL did not provide the consistent and complex grammatical structures that would have been required for the emerging signed language in Tajikistan. Instead, as in Nicaragua, TSL’s shared grammatical features likely developed in the intensive interactions amongst deaf children in school and in the dormitories.

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Justin M Power
PhD Candidate