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A Deaf Heart

In the years since this article was written, technology has continued to open new doors for Deaf communities in Spain. Animation is now seen as the primary vehicle for future sign language Scriptures.

For more information about the Parkhurst’s work, see the Summer 2009 issue of Wycliffe Canada’s WordAlive magazine, located at http://www.wycliffe.ca/wordalive/pdf/wam_2009_summer.pdf



hands doing sign languageDeaf people live in a visual world,” says signed-language linguist Steve Parkhurst. “For them, language isn’t linear. You've got your hands doing one thing, and your face doing something else, and you've got body movement—it’s a dynamic, exciting experience.”

Although neither one is deaf, Steve and Dianne Parkhurst met through signing. In 1989, after studying together at the Summer Institute of Linguistics at the University of North Dakota, Dianne was invited by a friend to assist in a signed-language project in Mexico. Meanwhile, Steve, an SIL* linguist fresh out of the classroom, was placed on the same project team.

As with most language survey projects, it was only a matter of months before their assignment was complete. Yet it was clear that Dianne and Steve’s relationship was just getting started. The two were soon married.

Their next step was to look for another signed-language project that could utilize their skills. “Signed language is not universal,” says Steve. “There are more than 150 signed languages that we know of. Some countries have several signed languages. And there’s not usually a close relationship between the spoken language of a country and the signed language. For example, Mexico and Spain both speak Spanish, but their signed languages are very different.”

Despite the large number of signed languages, few were ready for a translation project. In fact, many didn’t recognize the need. “People often ask why the Deaf can't read like a hearing person,” says Steve. “This is because written words courtyardare based on sound, which a Deaf person is unfamiliar with. It's almost like us having to memorize a phone number for every word. That's not to say that there aren't Deaf people who can read. Many can, but it doesn't touch them as well.”

Steve and Dianne finally decided to tackle a signed-language survey of Spain. They started with nine months in Madrid, where they began learning the local signed dialect. “Here in Spain, it's fairly typical for people to belong to an association or club,” Steve says. “It's also typical for people to go to a cafe after work to socialize before going home. Deaf people go to a Deaf club for similar reasons. We have learned the local Deaf language by going to these clubs.”

Next they traveled around, gathering word lists and video footage of the signed language in use. After comparing word lists and using the footage to test comprehension between people in various cities, they concluded that there is a distinct signed-language dialect in nearly every major city with a Deaf community. They recognized two definite translation needs—one in Madrid and one in Barcelona.

“If Deaf people learn to read and write in their own signing system, that increases their self-esteem,” says Dianne. “This shows that signed language has value.” For that reason, in participation with the country’s National Federation of the Deaf, Steve and Dianne developed materials to help teach SignWriting—a pictorial-style writing system that was developed over hands holding a globe30 years ago by Valerie Sutton and the Deaf Action Committee. The system uses a series of visual symbols to represent the hand shapes, movements and facial expressions of signed languages. Dianne and Steve taught over 300 people to use SignWriting, and they continue to utilize the system in their work today.

While the SignWriting system has its place, technology offers easier accessibility through interactive DVDs. “Currently we’re working on a 3D animation of a life-like figure signing the Christmas story,” says Steve. This is an experimental process for the Parkhursts—it will be the first-ever 3D-animated signed Scripture. They hope to have it ready for viewing by the end of 2007. Although this is an exciting step for Steve and Dianne, it’s only a small step in a long journey. So what motivates them for the long road ahead? They cite God’s own words, spoken to Moses in Exodus 4:11**, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord?”

“When people ask me if I am deaf,” adds Steve, “I have to say no. I tell them that I’m hearing, but my heart is Deaf. And I think God has a Deaf heart as well.”

(Story by Matt Peteresen)

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*SIL is a Wycliffe affiliate organization.
**New International Version  

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