We live in a country where our constitution recognises 11 official languages, and the fact that we have so many official languages poses a major challenge to businesses and brands operating in and around South Africa. There are a few questions that these businesses and brands need to ask themselves:
1. Should we adopt a common language approach, whereby all their communication is done in a single language (with English widely understood by most to be the global business language)?
2. Do we offer all 11 official languages?
3. Do we offer the most relevant languages to the area?
This leads to an even more vital and difficult question that needs to be considered – What about non-official languages, or perhaps large communities of foreign residents living in SA; should their language not be considered?
Take the Deaf community of South Africa as an example. There are over 500,000 Deaf and more than 1,500,000 Hard of hearing people within South Africa, and yet South African Sign Language is not yet considered an official language. How do we incorporate SASL into mainstream society, when currently there is an unfounded perception out there that if someone communicates in Sign Language they are simply disabled? Is there a way for us to switch this perception and really turn it on its head? What if we see SASL as exactly what it is: just another language?
Sign Language could be partly regarded as an environmental disability… never has an able-bodied person felt more disabled than when they visit our offices. Everyone communicates freely and effectively in Sign Language – with the exception of our visitor who suddenly feels inadequate and unable to communicate without an interpreter! Wheelchair bound individuals for example are only “disabled” when the environment is not accessible for wheelchairs.
When we shift perception from a disability to that of learning a new language, we remove barriers that we placed upon ourselves, the most common one being the feeling that one will be unable to communicate with the person. In a foreign country, people always find a way to communicate, so why should communicating with a Deaf person be any different?
The main difficulty in learning a different language is being exposed to that language. Many people will use books and visual resources to begin that process, with the internet, globalization, and the variety of applications available, it is possible to reach a basic level of proficiency and build on that foundation from there.
The human brain is capable of some truly remarkable things, and when coupled with persistence to continue learning, it is possible to learn a new language – even if it is a language processed through sight rather than through hearing. Research indicates that it is far better to spend 15 to 30 mins each day on learning a language than to spend multiple hours at one time. Frequent repetition is key.
So, the challenge is this… next time you see a person communicating in Sign Language, why not initiate a gestural conversation? You will soon realise that the Deaf and Hearing communities are similar in terms of likes, abilities, thoughts, feelings and dreams for the future.