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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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International Perspectives on Sign Language Interpreter Education

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Fiji is effectively the hub of the South Pacific, home to the headquarters of many regional organizations. The University of the South Pacific has its largest campus in Suva. Pacific islander people are mobile and need to move to where the work is in order to support their families and communities, so Fiji attracts a mix of Pacific cultures. This diversity is reflected in the demography of the Deaf community, which includes Fijians and Indo-Fijians, as well as people from Tonga, Samoa, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.

The colonial legacy of kaivalagi dominance, the introduction of Christianity (53% of the population is Christian), the mix of races, the movement of people, and the privileged status of English in society, are all factors which have shaped the Fiji Deaf community and its interpreting needs.

Deaf Education

In many places around the world, Deaf communities have grown out of the contact and language exposure provided by residential deaf schools (Johnston, 1989). More recently, this pattern has been borne out in Nicaragua, where the first deaf school became the platform for the development of Nicaraguan Sign Language and a local Deaf community (Senghas & Kegl, 1994). From 1968, deaf children in Fiji were sent to “special schools” catering to children with a broad range of disabilities. Deaf children were mainstreamed with other “disabled” children, rather than having a deaf-specific educational program. These conditions were not a catalyst for the creation of a Deaf community or the consolidation of a signed language.

In 1966, the Fiji Crippled Children’s Society asked for assistance regarding the education of deaf children. The New Zealand Education Department subsequently conducted a survey of Fiji, visiting educational facilities and meeting people with disabilities. The survey concluded that “the problem of deafness in Fiji, with particular reference to the younger age groups, was severe” (Hilton, 1972, p. 1).

Frank Hilton came to Fiji from Australia in 1967, to be head teacher of the Suva Crippled Children’s School. He initiated a pilot scheme to teach the “hearing handicapped children” separately (Hilton, 1972). Oralism was the method of instruction. Hilton noted that the children did use signs but the signing was esoteric; that the children themselves “made it.” There was no standardized signing system in those days (Hilton, 2007). Interviews with older deaf people who were ex-pupils of the school reveal that when they were together at playtime or outside of school, they did use signs: a mixture of home signs and mime, combined with mouthing of English, Fijian, or Hindi words (Nelson, 2007). A hostel was set up by the school in 1970 to cater for children who lived outside Suva, however it had only five beds for deaf children, so it did not have the critical mass to function as a language hot-house as with other residential schools.

In the early 1980s, teachers of the deaf in Fiji undertook training in Australia, studying at the State College of Victoria (now Melbourne University). They returned with a new signing system: Australasian Signed English (Hilton, 2007). Australasian Signed English (ASE) is not the natural language of the signing Deaf community in Australia; that language is Australian Sign Language (Auslan). ASE follows the grammatical rules of English and is a composite of Auslan signs and contrived signs (Johnston, 1989). The introduction of ASE and its Dictionary of Australasian Signs for Communication with the Deaf (Jeanes & Reynolds, 1982) had a huge impact on the development of Fiji Sign Language. Just as spoken English has been imposed as the language of instruction in mainstream Fiji education, ASE signs have been used to teach English to deaf students, whose mother tongue, if any, is usually Fijian or Fiji-Hindi.

Most Fiji islanders’ social lives are heavily immersed in family, church, and sporting activities. At this time, there were no extracurricular activities or organized groups for deaf people beyond school, so deaf people only socialized with close friends in isolated pockets. Ex-students of the school state that there was shame associated with being seen in public as a deaf person, using sign language (Nelson, 2007). After deaf children left school, they tended to go straight back to their family, village, or island. Many of the Indo-Fijian deaf children subsequently emigrated with their families to America or New Zealand (Hilton, 2007).

Sign Language Development

Vivienne Harland’s work in Fiji has had a big impact on the consolidation of the Deaf community in Suva and beyond. Harland, who became deaf as a child, came from New Zealand to work as a missionary with the Gospel Church in Fiji in the 1970s. She returned to New Zealand in the early 1980s and, after losing further hearing, decided to learn to sign. At the Christchurch Deaf Club she learned ASE. When she returned to Fiji in 1991, she combined her missionary work with her sign communication skills and established the Christian Fellowship for the Deaf (CFD). The CFD provided Bible


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