Since October, a team of sign language experts and researchers in Delhi has been working on a first-of-its-kind project — an official Indian Sign Language dictionary. This is the Indian government's first step towards compiling a standardised set of signs to be followed across the country.
The dictionary will include about 6,000 words in English and Hindi, including everyday, legal, medical, technical and academic terms. Researchers have identified 44 hand-shapes, under which the words will be classified. Each word will be represented by an illustration and video. The dictionary is also being made keeping in mind the numerous regional variations in India.
The dictionary is being prepared by the Indian Sign Language Research and Training Centre (ISLRTC), a society set up by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in 2016 to teach, collect information and research on Indian Sign Language. The team includes linguistics experts and several people with hearing or speech impairments.
In March, the ISLRTC will release the first installment of the dictionary on everyday words, on its website and invite experts and users to review it. The ministry will also organise a conference of experts to discuss the dictionary. After getting the requisite feedback, the dictionary will be finalised and printed. The entire dictionary will be available online as well as in print.
"In order to teach sign language in schools and colleges, you need to have a standard pattern so that students and teachers can learn it properly."
Indian Sign Language differs from British and American sign languages in several ways. Several smaller dictionaries have been published over the years, such as a series published by Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University. ISLRTC's dictionary plans to collate this data and regional variations. "Indian sign language is very scientific and has its own grammar, but lack of awareness has meant that many deaf people are not even aware of institutions where they can learn it and equip themselves for public communication," Andeshna Mangala of ISLRTC told BBC.
"In order to teach sign language in schools and colleges, you need to have a standard pattern so that students and teachers can learn it properly," Awanish Awasthi, joint secretary at the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, said. "After bringing out the dictionary, the next step will be to take it to both special and inclusive schools for deaf children." Awasthi added that the dictionary will help the hearing-impaired pursue higher education.
According to official estimates, there are between 50 lakh hearing-impaired persons and 20 lakh speech-impaired persons in India. Yet, according to the Indian Express, there are only 700 schools which teach sign language and around 300 sign language interpreters in India. "Like every language, sign language too has its own phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics," ISLRTC's Abhishek Srivastava told the Indian Express. "The dictionary, once made widely available, will bridge the communication gap between the deaf and the hearing."