Trinidad and Tobago Endangered Languages


Trinidad and Tobago Sign Language (TTSL) is the youngest and perhaps the least known of Trinidad and Tobago’s (T&T) heritage languages. In fact, it’s one of the youngest languages in the world, having been created over the last 70 years. Here we discuss the remarkable story of its birth, and its importance to the deaf community of T&T.

Before getting to that story, however, it is important to dispel a few popular misconceptions about sign languages generally. There are many rather persistent myths, including: that sign languages are not “real” languages; that they are essentially made up of mimes and gestures; that they can only express concrete ideas and not abstract concepts; that they are incapable of poetic expression, of metaphors or idioms; that they are based on spoken languages; and that sign language is ‘universal’. As scientific research on sign languages has grown from its beginnings in the 1960s, all of these have been proven to be quite wrong.  Sign languages have structure and grammar; they have accents and dialects; and they can be used for any purpose: there are deaf politicians, deaf academics and deaf poets.

There is not one ‘universal’ sign language. In fact, we don’t know for sure how many sign languages there are around the world, but the figure may be somewhere around 600 (compared to around 6,000 spoken languages). Each is distinct and reflects the culture of the particular community which uses it. Just because the spoken language used in certain parts of the world may be the same, this does not mean that the deaf communities of those places will share a signed language: American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL), for example, are completely distinct languages, while the sign language used in Taiwan seems to be quite close to the one used in Japan, despite the fact that most hearing Taiwanese people do not share a spoken language with most Japanese hearing people. Finally, although sign languages are often conventionally named after the country in which they are used (e.g. Irish Sign Language, French Sign Language, etc), it is not unusual for more than one signed language to be used in a single country: Jamaica, for example, has at least two signed languages.

Before the 1940s, there was no special education for deaf children in Trinidad and Tobago, and as far as we know there were no opportunities for groups of deaf people to meet, socialize and form a community. Without this, there could be no widespread signed language, and it seems likely that deaf people, dispersed around the country, would have communicated using idiosyncratic home signing systems, rather than a shared sign language. This all changed in 1943 when the first school for deaf children was founded in Edward Street, Port of Spain, moving shortly afterwards to the current site in Cascade. For the first time, deaf children from around the country came together in one place, new friendships were made, and these formed the basis for a completely new community with a completely new language.

The Cascade School for the Deaf had dormitories for pupils whose homes were too far for a daily commute, and it was in those dormitories that TTSL was borne.  The predominant view at the time was that the goal of educating deaf children should be to equip them with speech and lipreading skills, and that allowing deaf children to sign would inhibit their progress. ( In fact, recent research has shown that early exposure to signed language actually helps deaf children who receive a cochlear implant to develop speech.) Therefore, in the early years at Cascade, signing was prohibited in the classroom, and children who did try to communicate with their hands were often punished. When the children returned to the dormitories after class however, they were free to communicate as they chose and, unsurprisingly, when communicating with each other, they preferred to sign. Since the children had had very little exposure to any signed language, they had to make up a new language for themselves. Over the years, the new signs were passed on through successive generations of pupils, and TTSL grew into the language of the Trinbagonian deaf community which was emerging alongside it.