Tens of thousands of deaf people are locked in a world of silence in PNG, having never been taught sign language and unable to communicate with others.
Foreting and Nathalie Juhonewe, who are both deaf themselves, have a burden for ministering to the deaf of PNG. They know that establishing an accurate dictionary is the first step. In fact, Nathalie calls it a fundamental leap. She asks, “How can anyone translate the Bible into PNG’s sign language if there’s no dictionary to rely on and just a few established signs for Christian concepts? And most of all, how can anyone reach the deaf if they haven’t acquired any language since their parents never learned to sign with them as children?”
There is an old dictionary from 1994 which a team of hearing people copied from Australian Sign Language with some created signs for PNG words, totaling about 2250 words/signs. However, it needs revision to be useful for the deaf community in PNG. The sign language used in this country has developed into an independent sign language with its own native grammar and syntax.
Now that the deaf children who have used the dictionary since 1994 are adults, they are reviewing the dictionary and updating it to include signs used in their language and deleting signs that they don’t use. A team of deaf people from every corner of Papua New Guinea has gathered twice yearly since 2012 and developed almost 1300 new signs thus far. The goal is a sign language dictionary that will be an up-to-date foundation for everyone who needs or wants to know the national sign language used here in PNG.
There are an estimated 24,000 – 30,000 pre-lingual deaf people in PNG who were not taught sign language as children. Once every deaf child starts to learn it, the national sign language would become one of the largest indigenous languages of Papua New Guinea. That’s not happening yet, but Foreting, Nathalie and others are working toward that goal.
Nathalie explained, “We minister to the deaf in the hopes of seeing every deaf child start to sign, so they have a language to connect with other people and to learn about our amazing and loving God.”