Sign language a visual, vibrant tool for deaf kids

FOR the deaf child, South African Sign Language is the key to life, literature and the richness of language, writes Kirsty Malcons of SLED (Sign Language Education and Development)

All of us need language to play, grow, think and learn. For most children this happens spontaneously.

Each child develops an inner set of language rules based on communicating with others who use the same language.

You may not know it, but children grasp a very complicated set of grammar rules from a very young age. For the child born deaf, this is not so. Of all the barriers to learning that they face, the most important is that of access to natural language.

Spoken language gives deaf children very little visual information to work with and because of this, linguistic information is, for them, “incomplete”.

On the other hand, South African Sign Language (SASL) is a visual language, and it is the most natural language in the world of a deaf child.

SASL doesn’t just use the hands, but also facial expression and body movement.

It also uses three-dimensional space, and has a structure that allows for simultaneously produced information.

In sum, everything is adapted to how the eye perceives information, which is conveyed in a very animated way.

Imagine this: Through SASL the deaf child can argue a point through lively eyebrows, change a tree into a helicopter with a wrist flick, and travel back in time by cycling hands over a shoulder.

Through SASL, thoughts and dreams freely become moving pictures in this vibrant language of the deaf heart.

But because SASL is not written, it is necessary for deaf children to master both SASL and a spoken language in its written form.

In other words, deaf children must become bilingual – not in the usual sense, but in the way they have to acquire both a signed system and a written system.

So the deaf child needs to develop literacy based on sight and not sound.

When the caregiver ‘reads aloud’ to the deaf child, she needs to translate between the structure of the written language and the structure of SASL.

This means she is teaching the child to understand the magical wonderment and rich differences of both languages.

Since our beginning in 2001, SLED has been working towards excellent education for South African deaf pupils through SASL.

Our vision is to see all of South Africa’s deaf children achieving their full potential through the facilitation of the deaf child’s equal and democratic right to literacy and learning through the use of SASL.

For more information, call SLED on (021) 448-2520 or e-mail

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them – it builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success.

Find out more about the Nal’ibali Story Power campaign or view Nal’ibali’s powerful PSA promoting mother tongue languages, at

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