On a Tuesday afternoon in early August, in a classroom at Bengaluru’s Dr SR Chandrasekhar Institute for Speech and Hearing, a teacher was reprimanding her sixth-grade class for their poor performance on a recent English exam. “Did you children not understand the chapter?” she asked, enunciating each word she spoke, so that her students—many of whom are deaf or partially deaf—could read her lips.
As the teacher turned to write instructions on the board, a student sitting in the front row whipped around and, with a cheeky smile, made a series of hand motions to a boy on the bench behind him, who nodded and responded with a few quick gestures of his own. Sensing a disturbance, the teacher turned around and caught the boys mid-conversation. She raised her voice and wagged her finger at them, saying, “You can discuss lunchtime and playing games later, children!” The boy at the front put a finger on his lips to indicate compliance, and the teacher returned to writing on the board.
Students at the Chandrasekhar Institute often communicate with one another in American Sign Language, or ASL—although Indian Sign Language, or ISL, is their formal medium of instruction. ASL is the predominant language of deaf communities in the United States and Canada. It sometimes involves manual spelling of words using the ASL alphabet, whose signs correspond directly to the letters of the English alphabet. ISL—the sign language most commonly used in India—has many different varieties, and uses a manual alphabet that is influenced by that of British Sign Language. While the ASL alphabet is signed with only one hand, the ISL alphabet requires the use of both. This last difference was how, as someone who doesn’t know either language, I guessed that the students at the Chandrasekhar Institute were using ASL.
The students at the institute are far from the only people in Bengaluru who use ASL. In a 2012 paper, Sibaji Panda, a linguist, wrote that, in the city, “ASL has been used in schools and religious services since the post-independence period. This is unusual in India, where Indian Sign Language is used in virtually all urban areas.” Because of the foundational role that Americans have played in organisations serving the hearing-impaired in Bengaluru, ASL has spread throughout the city’s deaf community. Today, the influence of ASL is only growing further, due to media resources in the language proliferating on the internet.
Maria Gorretti, who is the coordinator for sign-language instruction at the Chandrasekhar Institute, did not know Indian Sign Language when she began working there. She told me that in Bengaluru, many Christian missionaries have set up or contributed to schools and service organisations that work with the deaf. One of the most influential, the Technical Training Centre for the Deaf, which helped the hearing-impaired find jobs at factories, was set up in 1982 by Harry Stocks, a Christian clergyman from Canada who used ASL.
Those who use ASL in Bengaluru typically have access to education. In a crowded cafe in August, I met Alok Bhaisare, a 27-year-old former software engineer. He was born with good hearing, but it degenerated as he grew older until he became completely deaf. As we sat amid the cafe’s cigarette smoke and loud conversation, I scrawled my questions for him in a notebook, and he answered them by typing on an electronic tablet. “Every deaf needs bilingual education system,” he wrote, explaining that English was typically used “for reading,” and ISL for communicating in person. “But to access written information we must know English,” he typed. “Knowing only ASL means you know lot about English.”
Prema Lohia, an instructor in the sign-language department at the Chandrasekhar Institute, learnt ASL as a young girl, from an American who was visiting the school for the deaf that she attended in Kolkata. Now, Lohia and her husband, both of whom are deaf, use a mix of ASL and ISL to communicate with one another. Lohia told me that her husband, unlike her, “went to a normal college in Mysore, where he learnt to lip read and speak”—both practices that, in India, are commonly encouraged for deaf children over using sign language. As a result, he is still more comfortable than she is with reading lips and speaking, while she is more comfortable than he is with sign language.
While the presence of instructors with educational backgrounds such as Lohia’s is one reason for the spread of ASL in Bengaluru, another is the glut of online materials available in that language. On YouTube alone, there are hundreds of videos of people using and teaching ASL. Some ISL resources exist too, but these are far rarer. “A very good site is Rama Krishna Missions: they have a sign-language dictionary which is open for everybody,” Gorretti said. But, when it comes to web resources, she continued, deaf students can pretty much choose to go to that one site, “or they go to American Sign Language.”
In his 2012 paper, Panda studied Alipur, a village 80 kilometres north of Bengaluru that has also been affected by the influence of ASL. “Due to the internet, films of other sign languages are now available to the deaf villagers, and teachers at the deaf school often use American Sign Language,” he wrote. This can manifest itself in a generational divide. “Now communication is sometimes difficult between younger deaf people with ASL and English skills and those who … have no knowledge of ASL and English.” Some older deaf people, he continued, “have started complaining why the children are ‘using strange Bengaluru signs.’”
The cultural gulf between ASL and ISL is especially visible in the contrast between certain signs. The sign for “woman” in ISL, Gorretti showed me, is the speaker pointing to one’s nose—indicating a nose ring. In ASL, she said, the corresponding sign—forming a fist and using one’s thumb to stroke one’s cheek—comes from the act of tying the ribbon that holds a woman’s bonnet in place.
While the scale of ASL’s influence on Bengaluru makes the city unique, the language is also used elsewhere in India. Saurav Roychowdhury, who has taught deaf children for many years in Meghalaya, told me about a time he was teaching a home-science class about puberty. He was predominantly using ISL, but he soon ran into a problem: the language has no sign for “period” or “menstruation.” Colloquial gestures failed him; “you cannot gesticulate and point and do weird things and draw because it’s a very sensitive thing,” he said. “We had a class with eight boys and six girls.” So, Roychowdhury used the sign for “menstruation” in ASL. At that point, he explained, “I didn’t have any other option.”
Corrections: A previous version of this article stated that American Sign Language is “partially based” on English because it incorporates the spelling of English words using manual signs. While ASL does often involve such manual spelling, the language itself is not based on English. It also stated that ISL does not have an alphabet. In fact, ISL does use a manual alphabet, which is based on that of British Sign Language. The article also stated that ASL uses one hand while ISL uses two. While this is true for the use of manual fingerspelling in the respective languages, it is not true for the languages in their entirety. Further, the description of an institute that worked with the deaf was modified to remove an unsubstantiated detail. The piece also stated earlier that Saurav Roychowdhury used ASL to manually spell out “menstruation”—in fact, he used the ASL sign for the word.