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.