Visual Haitian Dictionary

Northport Rotary Announces Printing of the First Haitian Visual Dictionary.

The Rotary Clubs of Freeport-Merrick and Northport, New York, in collaboration with Institut Montfort, the largest school for deaf children in Haiti, and our host Rotary Club, Port-au-Prince, joined in a Rotary Foundation Global Grant Project to support an ongoing program of literacy education for the deaf population of Haiti. Additional funding was provided by Friends of Montfort, Rotary District 7255 (Long Island, Queens, Brooklyn), Ronkonkoma Rotary Club and Rotary International.

Core to the project was the completion and printing of the Haitian Visual Dictionary. This dictionary combines a newly standardized Haitian Sign Language (LSH) signs with pictures and words in Creole, French and English. It is being used in language instruction at Institute Montfort and other deaf schools in Haiti. It will also be available as a valuable resource for basic language training for illiterate people, both deaf and hearing.

Within the Rotary global grant, the dictionary has been used for training of teachers and students, using various teaching methods, in seminars in October and December 2023. Seminars were conducted in the northern city of Cap Haitian due to extensive gang warfare concentrated in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Additional seminars are planned as local conditions permit. Each seminar participant is expected to share their training with their peers and students.

The natural “first language” of the deaf is sign language. With no training their natural inclination is to make up signs to communicate. Where there is a community of deaf people, they develop community signing systems. Communities develop shared signs for communication. Gradually, these systems have been broadened and documented. Institut Monfort has led an effort in Haiti to develop a standardized Haitian sign language.

Use of sign language in deaf education has expanded recently. For many years “experts” contended that deaf people could only integrate in a hearing world if they learned to speak. Language training focused on written words and speech therapy. Sign language was considered a destructive crutch. This approach proved to be ineffective for most deaf students, both in language learning and training in other subjects.

Students understood bits and pieces but basically felt left out and lost in an oral classroom. Research and time have shown that the deaf learn better with a visual language and so today, some form of sign language is being used in most schools around the world.

In Haiti, there are three commonly used languages, native Creole, French and English. For Haitians, day-to-day communication requires some knowledge of each of the three languages.

After the 2010 earthquake several educators and deaf leaders were brought to Haiti to determine the conditions that existed for the deaf, The visiting group, which included Sylvie Weir, Eve Mitton, and Juan Carlos (all of Haitian decent), realized that there was no one visual language for the Haitian deaf. The lack of a single sign language led to confusion and serious misunderstandings (e.g., non-comprehension of school subjects, medical treatment confusion, lack of understanding with police and fire department agencies, and legal aid office misunderstandings).

To address this problem, Jonas Cadet, a Haitian deaf teacher, began to build a dictionary ofLSH signs in 2012. Those first signs were very militaristic and often included ASL (American Sign Language) signs. In 2013, Jonas, Sylvie Weir, and Kayte McAuliff, along with deaf LSH leaders began to videotape the LSH language. Jean Berube, Sylvie Weir and Jonas Cadet began to work with the LSH signers that worked in summer camps at Montfort in 2014 to identify and record LSH signs. Accepted signs, matched with appropriate pictures and written words in Creole, French, and English were included. This work was mentored by Jean Berube. Jean taught at Gallaudet University for the Deaf from 1965-2010. She founded a Personal Discovery Program in 1979 which has exposed students to international environments and supported deaf education. She continues in deaf education at Institut Montfort and ran two summer camps at Institut Montfort from 2013-2019.

From 2017, work continued to refine the drawings, make sure the pictures reflect the meaning of each word, and place each word into an appropriate subject folder. As with any dictionary, this work will continue for as long as the language is used, adding and refining words as usage changes.

In early 2024, 500 copies of the current dictionary (2,500 words) were printed and teacher training was formalized in the use of the visual dictionary and use of a power point of the dictionary, along with teaching materials to enhance the learning of visual and written

Future plans include trips to all ten Haitian districts to introduce the training program and continue development of the LSH vocabulary. This work will be collected and added in future reprints of the visual dictionary. DVDs of the dictionary will be made as well as expanded instructional materials. Training will be extended beyond families of deaf people to the broader community (e.g., medical professions, service people, government agencies, churches, hearing schools). Because of extensive illiteracy in Haiti (75% of a mostly young population), this educational program, focused on visual learning, is adaptable for hearing populations as well.

Part of this process will be to develop language interpreters to aid in understanding each of the language components, LSH, Creole, French and English. Each has different forms of meaning, usage, syntax and grammar. As with any multilingual training it is not enough to translate single words from one language to another. Interpretation requires an understanding of signsand words in context.