Ms Susan Njeyiyana, a lecturer in the General Linguistics Department, recently received a Promising Young Linguist award for a poster she presented at the prestigious 20th International Congress of Linguists that was hosted in Cape Town.
Njeyiyana, Deaf and uses South African Sign Language (SASL) as her first language while she also understands English and Setswana and teaches South African Sign Language (SASL) Acquisition for L2 first year students in the department.
“It was an amazing feeling to receive this award. Initially I couldn't believe that I was selected out of the many other excellent posters that were on display during the conference. I was certainly pleasantly surprised and it's fuelled my ambition to further my studies even more," she says.
Her poster topic was born from her Honours degree which focused on research she conducted to “establish whether there is evidence of SASL dialects in schools for the Deaf".
“The history of Deaf education goes back to the apartheid era, where many schools for the Deaf were established by different religious groups. Some by nuns from Ireland while others were established by nuns from Germany and also the Dutch Reformed Church."
The first school for the Deaf in South Africa was opened in 1863 by the Irish Dominican Order. Quoting Philemon Akach, she explains: “This school, from its inception, catered for all race groups, and used signed language as a medium of instruction."
However, the nuns who taught at this school were from Ireland and their sign language instruction had originated in France in the 18thcentury.
“In my studies I found that many sign languages have documented the phenomenon of signers adapting their lexical items for a number of reasons. The focus of this study was on so-called 'school-lects', a term which refers to the transmission of sign language in schools for Deaf children."
Referring to Gary Quinn (2010) who is Assistant Professor at Heriot Watt University, Scotland , she explains that like Quinn, who studied the role that school-lects play in regional variation in British Sign Language (BSL), she is interested in researching the impact of these school-lects on lexical variation in SASL.
“I found that although the participants of the study retain some lexical items from their school-lects, the data seems to show that the retention of school-lects is decreasing, in other words, there is more change. The reasons for this are the abolishment of apartheid, and using similar variations and SASL curriculum implementation since the coining of new signs and terms for linguistic terminology by different groups in South Africa."
Her own childhood has also formed her and her interests as an academic. Njeyiyana, who was born in Soweto, is one of four siblings of which three are Deaf. She attended The Dominican School for the Deaf in Hammanskraal and finished matric at St Vincent School for the Deaf.
“Drawing from my personal experience as a Deaf child who had to move between two very different schools for the Deaf, it was clear that the signs I learned from Hammanskraal was very different to that of St Vincent. Through my research I want to investigate the transmission of signs in an individual from one space to the next, where some of the 'older' signs seem to disappear and are being replaced by new signs which is due to more language contact occurring."
“Today there is no more apartheid and we have access to social media where Deaf people from anywhere can visually communicate with each other over vast distances, creating more opportunity for signed languages to influence each other which gives us more rich variation in sign languages."
Speaking to Njeyiyana, her passion for her work as an educator is apparent. It is therefore surprising to hear that she had not been sure what to study upon completing her matric in 1993.
“I was unsure of which direction to study and eventually ended up doing a course in Graphic Design, which was a reflection of my creative nature. However, my ability and talent as a SASL poet was spotted by SLED where I became one of the founding members and also worked for 16 years. During my time there I was afforded the opportunity to study SASL in-depth which led to me teaching SASL to groups of hearing people and being trained as a facilitator for adult learning events," she explains.
In 2014, she attended a short course on SASL poetry at the University of the Witwatersrand.
“This was where my passion was ignited. A few years later I decided to further my studies and chose to attend Wits University to complete my Honours degree in South African Sign Language Linguistics. No sooner had I finished my studies, when I heard about the opportunity to work at Stellenbosch University. I immediately jumped at the chance to apply and was pleasantly surprised when I was informed that I would be joining the team."
Njeyiyana is married with two children, who currently still reside in Gauteng while she sets up a home in the Western Cape.
In South Africa, as is the case in many other countries across the world, Deaf persons are a “linguistic minority" and “often overlooked".
“As with many other smaller groups, the natural thing for big communities to do, is to push them aside. And this is very true of the Deaf community. Accessibility is our main barrier as a Deaf community. Access to information, education, social events and access to the world around us. We receive information in a visual way and we don't have the choice to be hearing, like you would have the choice to learn another language," says Njeyiyana.
However, adds Njeyiyana, those who are able to hear have a choice to adapt and fit in with the Deaf by learning sign language.
“And that is why I'm here, to build that bridge, however small it may be, between the Deaf and the hearing worlds, through teaching SASL Acquisition in the General Linguistics Department of Stellenbosch University. It's not about 'helping the poor Deaf', but rather creating the space where we can be true equals."
She hopes that her achievements thus far will encourage other Deaf persons to consider a career in academia.
“I want to show the Deaf youth that being a Deaf academic is possible and my way of getting them to the point of being able to attend a higher institution of learning after school, is through the Learning and Teaching Support Material project which I'm involved with at Stellenbosch University. This project develops teacher material for teaching SASL in the classroom in the schools for the Deaf. As with hearing children who learn a spoken language, Deaf children are only now able to learn SASL as a subject. I have a passion for developing SASL literature and more specifically sharing my knowledge of SASL poetry through workshops and interacting with the children."
Photo: Ms Susan Njeyiyana, a lecturer in the General Linguistics Department, recently received a Promising Young Linguist award for a poster she presented at the prestigious 20th International Congress of Linguists that was hosted in Cape Town. (Lynne Rippenaar-Moses)