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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Many Ways to Be Deaf: International Variation in Deaf Communities

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A visitor to the Chiying School is struck immediately by the fact that signing is the preferred mode of communication there. Closer inspection also reveals linguistic diversity.

Language Use During the Chiying School’s Distant Past

The Japanese are believed to be the first Asians to formally educate their deaf citizens (Hodgson 1953, 267). The 50-year Japanese occupation of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945 is important to deaf history in Taiwan because, during this time, the two schools for the deaf were established in Tainan and Taipei. The Tainan school was set up in 1915 and was staffed with teachers from Tokyo. The Taipei school, set up in 1917, was staffed with teachers from Osaka. The teachers from Japan “used their respective dialects of Japanese Sign Language in their classrooms” (Chao, Chu, and Liu 1988, 9; Smith 1989, 1). That language, which originated in Japan and which took hold in Taiwan through the schools for the deaf in Tainan and Taipei, is today known as TSL.

Chiang Ssu Nung left mainland China in 1949 (Smith 1999) when the communists took over and, like many refugees, he settled in Taiwan. When he arrived in Taiwan, he established a school for the deaf in Keelung, Taiwan, that lasted less than a year.3 Chiang then moved south to Kaohsiung and established the Chiying School (Chao, Chu, and Liu 1988, 9; Smith 1999).

TSL was entrenched in the schools for the deaf by the time Chiang Ssu Nung arrived in Taiwan. But Chiang, who was late-deafened and had learned to sign in the Shanghai area (Smith 1999), neither knew nor cared to know TSL.4 He preferred to use the Chinese signs as a medium of instruction in his schools.5 Deaf children in Tainan and Taipei learned TSL throughout their schooling, but the children who attended the Chiying School used only CSL during their elementary school years. When they graduated, some went on to middle school in Tainan and learned TSL (Chao, Chu, and Liu 1988, 7). I met some of these former students at the Chiying School during the early 1990s. To my knowledge, they always produced TSL, but they continued to understand CSL.6 I also met signers who did not attend middle school and, so, did not have to learn TSL in school. Some of them still sign CSL, and some learned TSL on their own.

In Taiwan, a high school education was the highest level to which most deaf people could aspire; higher education has always eluded deaf Taiwanese. A discussion I had with a consultant revealed her genuine shock that I had a Deaf American professor on my dissertation committee.

Language Use During the Chiying School’s Recent Past

The tradition of using CSL as a medium of instruction remained in place at the Chiying School until sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s when the school changed over to TSL. In a conversation I had with Wayne Smith in 1999, he recalled seeing teachers from the Chiying School use CSL at a conference in Taipei in 1980. Neither Chiang Ssu Nung nor Jennifer, his daughter, elaborated on the reasons for the change with me. I sensed that the change was not a particularly welcome one. Although the Chiying School was private, in 1991, Smith surmised that the school changed from CSL to TSL “under pressure from the provincial government.”

By the time I arrived in Kaohsiung in the early 1990s, Chiang Ssu Nung had essentially retired and was living most of the time in Taipei. Although all the Chiying deaf people whom I met had learned CSL at the school when they were young, the changing times and evolving deaf community in Kaohsiung and Tainan had dislodged CSL, and, in the 1990s, it was a somewhat distantly remembered part of their linguistic lives. Few of the people I knew used it exclusively or even mostly, but it was remembered somewhat affectionately.

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