Social Science Baha

Lecture Series

Images and/as Language in Kathmandu’s Older and Vulnerable Deaf Person’s Project

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway
Lecture Series CVIII
January 24, 2023

Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway
Images and/as Language in Kathmandu’s Older and Vulnerable Deaf Person’s Project

What is the relationship between language and pictorial image? I address this question by drawing on ethnographic research conducted in Nepal’s Older and Vulnerable Deaf Person’s Project (ODP). This programme, which was hosted by the Kathmandu Association of the Deaf (KAD), provided material, social, and linguistic support to older deaf Nepalis, many of whom had not previously had an opportunity to fully acquire conventional signed or spoken languages. Leaders of the KAD established this program as part of their efforts to provide all deaf Nepalis an opportunity to participate in a deaf social life grounded in the use of Nepali Sign Language (NSL). In this presentation, I will explore the ways in which engagement with pictorial images in the ODP helped deaf elders cultivate the skills that underpin the reception and reproduction of conventionalised NSL signs.

This pedagogy emerged in part because local understandings of NSL as a language have been grounded in pictorial illustrations of signers performing standardised signs in sign language dictionaries, posters, and primers. An analysis of an ODP session demonstrates how elders’ image-making practices in some cases worked to center the reproduction of standardized signs; in others cases they exceeded the relatively narrow view of deaf modes of meaning-making that are presented in dictionaries and other texts. Analysis of these dynamics helps us consider what is obscured when language and image are defined in opposition to one another and helps us build a more nuanced view of how language relates to other forms of semiosis. In so doing, this work draws on and contributes to an emerging linguistic anthropology of images.

Rather than relying on conventional transcriptions or photographic images, in this research project I follow my deaf Nepali colleagues’ lead by using drawing as a tool for generating and communicating my own claims about language. The presentation concludes with a discussion of the increasing use of graphic methods for generating, reflecting, and circulating analyses in anthropology and other social sciences.

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Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway is a Professor and previous Chair of Anthropology at Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, USA. She has been conducting research with deaf signers in Nepal since 1997. Her research in Nepal and other sites, including Germany and Malta, focuses on the flexible multi-modal nature of linguistic practices as well as to the social factors that facilitate or limit that flexibility.

Professor Hoffmann-Dilloway’s work has appeared in journals such as The Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Language in Society, Language and Communication, American Anthropologist, Signs and Society, Pragmatics, Semiotic Review, Practicing Anthropology, and The Journal of South Asian Studies, and in a range of edited volumes. Her book, Signing and Belonging in Nepal, was published by Gallaudet University Press and received an Honorable Mention for the Society for Linguistic Anthropology’s Edward Sapir Book Prize. She is currently in Nepal as a Fulbright Senior Scholar, continuing her long-term research by exploring how changing socio-political conditions and media landscapes affect and are affected by Nepali deaf activism.

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