Sign Language Brings Optimism to Isolated Students

Thursday 30 May 2019

One morning, a young boy named Sela sits on the stairs at his home in Chamkar Ou commune in Pursat province. This was the first time we met him, but we could not communicate with one another. Sela is seven years old, and lives with profound hearing loss. The staff of Krousar Thmey, trained in Cambodian Sign Language, tried to communicate with him using signs, but still there was no response. He has never learned any sign language to communicate with people outside his family.

Sela and Sreynich, his 14-year-old sister, both live with hearing loss. They have invented their own signs to communicate with the family at home (home signs), but this does little to help them communicate with teachers, neighbours, classmates, or other deaf people. Sela and his sister study at the Chamkar Ou primary school, located about two kilometres from their home. Usually, they go to school by bicycle, and sometimes their mother takes them to school by motorbike.

Sela would often miss class because he did not like to go to school. Sometimes, no one would bother to take him to school. If his sister’s class schedules were different to his own, Sela would typically skip school entirely; he was afraid to go to school alone. Sreynich also struggles in school, but has adapted better than her younger brother has. She is slightly more confident and has a few friends that she can play with.

I sent him to school, but I did not expect that he would learn anything at all because no one could teach him. When he goes to school he just copies the letters on the blackboard,” his mother Ms. Syneoun said.

When Save the Children and Krousar Thmey started the Cambodian Sign Language project at Chamkar Ou primary school, the first step was to screen the students’ hearing. The school director noted Sela’s situation because he did not respond to speech from teachers or peers, and he could not speak. The screening confirmed that Sela had profound hearing loss. They identified that he had some hearing from his right ear, but no hearing from the left ear. Sela was provided a hearing aid, and he will need to learn sign language in order to more fully communicate. Sreynich was also identified as having profound hearing loss, and was provided hearing aids. Although she will be attending secondary school this year, she will still learn sign language through the project at Chamkar Ou primary school.

After Save the Children introduced the Cambodian Sign Language project to Sela and Sreynich’s parents, they were very interested and eager to see the project begin. They are committed to sending their children to school. Sela’s mother is optimistic, “By [using] sign language, my son and daughter will learn a lot; I hope my son will finish high school.” 

Sela has always been a shy boy, never communicating or playing with the other students during break time. He always preferred to sit alone or with his big sister. “My son was just happy to communicate and play with his sister with [their] home signs,” his mother explained.

After he met the deaf teachers from Krousar Thmey and saw other staff using sign language, he started to feel more confident. The support he has been receiving made him realise that his hearing loss is nothing to be ashamed of, and he is now making more efforts to use his home signs and other gestures with his classmates, teachers and neighbours. He has even started to play with his classmates during break time at school. What’s more, Sela and his mother have made a new habit of waking up early and getting ready for school every day, a big change for the whole family.

I never thought that [Sela] would learn anything… I would just send him to school. Now, I believe he will learn more and be able to communicate with his classmates and his teachers,” Ms. Syneoun expressed hopefully.