Deaf-hearing gestural interaction in Mumbai: An ethnography of communication

Deaf-hearing gestural interaction in Mumbai: An ethnography of communication

Annelies Kusters


The aim of this study is to understand the potential and limits of gesture use in language contact situations between deaf and hearing people who do not have fluency in a shared language (mode). In the socio-linguistically diverse environment of Mumbai, where (co-speech) gesture is widely and effectively used among speakers of different languages, the study considers two related issues: how fluent deaf signers use gestures (conventionalised and spontaneous) and aspects of Indian Sign Language to communicate with hearing non-signers; and how hearing speakers use gestures to communicate with deaf non-speakers. This research thus contributes to understanding the multilingual repertoire that speakers could use to achieve communication across diverse communities when attempting to reach mutual understanding. Deaf people can contribute greatly to studies of gesture, as they are skilled in creative gestural communication with hearing people.

In particular, the discourse range of gestural communication as well as its limitations and potential are investigated. The role of speech and writing in gestural communication are analysed, as is the role of the location of the interactions (i.e., the immediate physical/spatial environment). Hearing and deaf participants’ own perceptions of the relative ease of communicating on various topics in a range of situations are investigated. Relationships between the way gesture is used and the place where the interaction happens, as well as the underlying perspectives regarding gestures, sign language and deaf people, are identified.

To this end, gestural interactions in public and parochial spaces (such as markets, shops, streets, food joints, public transport, parks) between strangers, acquaintances or neighbours in Mumbai are observed and video-recorded, and interviews are conducted with both deaf and hearing individual participants to find out more about their views on gesture. The recordings provide data for analysis but also material for a film documentary, which will serve as a basis for further exploration in a second round of data collection in which the documentary will be presented for group discussion.

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