The present study makes use of a case study to determine the needs and characteristics of the learners at the De la Bat School for the Deaf in Worcester, Western Cape, in order to design and propose a theoretical model for a school dictionary. The case study was chosen in this case in lieu of the user study, given the constraints experienced by a single researcher. The De la Bat School for the Deaf was chosen because it provides a representative sample of Deaf learners from all over the country, including all race and socio-economical groups.
The ‘Doofstomme- en Blinde Instituut’ (“Institute for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind”) was founded in 1881 by the Dutch Reformed Church. The school grew to such an extent that the Divisions for the Deaf and Blind were separated in 1905, resulting in the “Worcester Skool vir Dowes” with Mr B.J.G. de la Bat as its principal. The name was changed to De la Bat School at the centenary celebrations of the school in 1981.
De la Bat School provides specialized education to deaf children. The students range from 3 years old in pre-school kindergarten classes to 20 years and are from the Western Cape, other provinces, and other countries like Namibia and Zimbabwe. These learners are deaf or hard of hearing, or have multiple disabilities and are frequently from disadvantaged families. Only 35% of parents are able to pay school fees.
Today the De la Bat School is a state subsidised autonomous structure. The National Institute for the Deaf (NID) acts as the sponsoring body for the school. In 2010 there were 170 learners at the school.
The medium is instruction is Sign Language, with Afrikaans or English as the language for reading and writing. Speech development takes place in the Foundation Phase within the ability of each learner, and (spoken) language instruction is done with the help of the Red Star method which was developed by educators in the Foundation Phase. The Red Star method will be discussed and explained in greater detail, as well as how it can be implemented in the proposed dictionary.
Subject teaching continues from the Intermediary Phase to high school, where learners receive instruction in subjects such as the home (spoken) language, first additional language, mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences, technology, economic and management sciences, life orientation and arts and culture.
At the NID College vocational training is also provided through further education, occupational and skills training for Deaf students in a variety of study fields, e.g. Hospitality, Cosmetology and Beauty, Construction, Upholstery, Welding, Agriculture, Early Childhood Development and Office Administration.
Most important to this particular study is the fact that the school is also the first school in the country to implement a Sign Language Curriculum which is systematically being rolled out across the various Grades in school. Ultimately, it must be possible for a learner to complete their Grade 12 studies – and beyond – in Sign Language, not only by receiving instruction in Sign Language, but also by taking their examinations in Sign Language. Modern video and computer technology makes it possible to record a signed version of the question paper, and a student’s signed answers can then easily be captured with a webcam. In this way literacy in the spoken language will no longer be a prerequisite for academic qualification, and Sign Language will at last (start to be) recognised as a fully fledged natural language, capable of the same things as any spoken language.
In this light it is thought that there is no better time to offer a dictionary as teaching and learning resource, as this will also contribute to learners’ sense of pride in their language and award a certain amount of status to it. The proposed model intends to provide a “growing” macrostructure that expands as learners progress through the school grades. Currently the school has no proper dictionary for class use and class vocabulary lists consist of lists written in the spoken language, with no visual aid or any possibility to provide or represent a sign equivalent. The proposed dictionary is aimed primarily as a class aid to the learners, but may also serve the parents and siblings at home.
While dictionaries of spoken languages with a written form are often used as tools of standardisation, it will be explained why this is not the case for the majority of sign language dictionaries, including the one that is proposed. The question of what constitutes a lexeme in a signed language will also be discussed.The dictionary will have a triple macrostructure consisting of 1) written entries, 2) sign entries arranged and searchable according to handshape, and 3) thematic categories accompanied by pictures. All entries will contain video clips of signs, because the dictionary will be electronic.