A Sociolinguistic Survey of Al-Hasa Deaf Community

Introduction and Purpose

This report describes a sociolinguistic survey of AlHasa deaf community. It addresses topics such as deaf education, language variation, language attitudes and language use. I have focused my research on deaf who live in Al-Hasa. I have gathered information about deaf and their sign language from different resources that are available to me. Observation, previous studies and interviews are the main instruments that I have used in my research paper to investigate different issues such as variation in their language and their attitudes towards sign language.

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I chose this topic because I believe that deaf and sign language are neglected by society. The number of studies that are conducted on deaf and sign language in Arab countries are really few. The second purpose for choosing this topic is that I am interested in deaf people and their sign language because I am a teacher of deaf and believe that it is my duty to use my education in linguistics to the best of my ability by conducting numerous research studies on the deaf community and sign language with the hope of improving their education.


Location and population distribution

AlHasa is located in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia. It comprises much of that country’s eastern province. It is well known for oil production and agriculture which are considered to be the main economic activities.

The population of AlHasa was estimated at 900,000 inhabitants in 2004 (Department of statistics, 2004). AlHasa has different cities which vary in their sizes and inhabitants. There are a lot of villages in AlHasa such as Al-Imran, Al-Jesha, Al-Fodool, Al-Menaizla ..etc. Deaf come different parts of AlHasa. The majority of deaf students come from the villages of AlHasa;  sixty percent of deaf students come from villages, twenty five percent come from Hofuf and fifteen percent come from Almubaraz.

Most of deaf in AlHasa have a genetic hearing impairment. Among the students with a genetic form of deafness, 85% of the cases were caused by first-cousin marriages. The most common non-genetic causes of deafness were identified as infection of the rubella virus in mothers during pregnancy, accidents, fever and taking medication during pregnancy.


The number of deaf in Al-Hasa does not seem to decrease and the numbers of deaf students who enroll every year in the institutes of deaf seem to be the same. There is currently no accurate statistics on the number of deaf people living in Al-Hasa.

Cultural and attitudes towards disability in AlHasa

In the Arab culture, people look down up on disabled persons and consider disability as something shameful. It is considered an ordeal, not only for the disabled person him/herself, but also for his/her family. In AlHasa, not all of families feel comfortable when they have a disabled member. Being inside a deaf community enables me to organize how deaf and their families towards disability. People in AlHasa society may be bothered for having a deaf person in their community. They might not be able to deal with him or understand his language. They might be bothered by their noises they produce- deaf people cannot control the volume and the degree of their voice. I did interview fifteen mothers to explore their attitudes towards their deaf children. They seemed satisfied for having deaf children but I felt from the tone of their voice some amount of sorrow for having disabled children. When I asked them about the way that they communicate with their children. The majority of them told me that they did not know any sign language or gestures, so they relied on one of family members to translate for them. In this case, the relationship between a mother and her child won’t be that strong and as a result of this, a deaf child might feel lonely when a few members can understand him/her and his/her needs.

I interviewed fifteen deaf students. Seven of them currently feel depressed because they felt that they were neglected by their families. They felt that they could not take part in conversations because they did not understand what was said.  Low attitudes towards deaf and disabled persons reflect on deaf people’s attitudes towards themselves and their sign language. I think one of the keys that make deaf success is changing this culture and attitudes towards deaf. I think when we change people’s attitudes and cultures towards deaf and sign language this will help deaf improve their attitudes towards themselves and their sign language. I think it is necessary to always remind them with of the Islamic message that everything that occurs and everything that exists in the world can be attributed to the will of Allah. Accordingly, impairment may be explained as an act of Allah, designed to test the faith of individuals and their capacity to accept that fate with patience. This perception of disability being bestowed as a test of faith and acceptance of God’s will plays a major part in shaping attitudes towards deafness and deaf individuals.



In 1976, the first two deaf schools was established for male and female students. Specialists in special needs education thought that deaf students were not like hearing students in learning, so they established special curricula to be taught in deaf schools.

The curricula were short and easy for deaf.  Later on, only eight years ago specialists in special needs education started to believe that deaf students are like hearing students and for that reason, deaf should be taught the same curricula of hearing students. So, special needs education started to integrate hard of hearing students with hearing students in the general education schools. I interviewed eight teachers and I questioned them about the curricula. All of them agreed that general education curricula  are not suitable for deaf children because they are too difficult for their level of understanding. I believe it is beneficial to teach deaf students general education curricula when we have changed our method of teaching and have given more attention to sign language. I may focus on this issue in my next study.

Deaf can learn in deaf schools  from kindergarten  to secondary stage. They cannot enroll in universities because they are not accepted to attend universities. Although there is a study course in the University of King Faisal to accept them as hearing students, I do not believe that they are able to study in universities because I think their level of attainment has not reached that of hearing. I think We need to raise their attainment targets before trying to push them into higher education.

Deaf people are not entirely satisfied with the education they receive, reporting that: they are not always equipped with the tools needed to find jobs; they may graduate with a low level of Arabic literary and ability. I believe their weakness in writing should be investigated and studied. I asked fourteen teachers about the reasons of deaf students’ weakness in writing and reading , all of them agreed that deafness was the main cause of their weakness. I do not totally agree with them because I believe that their disability is not the only factor. I undertook a study in which I compared my deaf students’ level with American and English deaf students who were the same age group as my students. I found that American and English deaf students surpassed my students by ten times. This phenomenon needs to be studied and investigated later on since I am unable to cover all of the issues regarding deaf and sign language in this research paper.

Meeting places

Deaf people choose to socialize, as a result of language and cultural barriers with the hearing community and in order to share experiences and language with each other.  These language barriers often hamper social relations with hearing people and this division generates avenues for marginalization from discrimination by the hearing society. Because of this, the deaf community as a whole is becoming increasingly united with each other through shared culture. Deaf students who are integrated with hearing students do not feel as comfortable as they feel when they are in a deaf community. In AlHasa, there is a club for male deaf people but there is no club for females. I believe that establishing a club for female deaf will be an important step to improve sign language use, and to encourage their solidarity and cultural identification. I conducted a study to determine the difference between male and female deaf.  I found that male deaf students were more fluent at signing than

females. I think this is because of different reasons. One of these reasons is that male deaf students have higher solidarity than females. They can meet outside school in clubs or in mosques unlike females who are not allowed to meet each other outside school, so they feel lost.  I think it is necessary for female deaf students to have the same opportunity as males because this will help them to improve their sign language and their attitudes towards it. When they meet outside school they will feel that they belong to a community which makes them feel stronger and more confident. I hope that the Saudi government will establish for them a club to gather and I hope that their parents can understand their needs and desires.

New technology

Deaf children today face a brighter future than the generation of deaf children before them. New technologies for communicating such as SMS or MSN instant massages can make deaf happier and not isolated. SMS is considered a relatively new technology in our community, with its breakthrough in the mid- 1990s, when it soon became integrated into deaf community. SMS makes it easier to communicate with everybody, deaf as well as hearing, and thus makes it easier to communicate with an entire social network. SMS messages can give deaf people a sense of belonging to a group. With SMS, the deaf have an opportunity to keep in direct touch with their hearing family members and friends. This is important to them because they operate in both deaf and hearing cultures.

Videophones allowing deaf people to sign to one another over distance may also prove to be disruptive in the sense that it will remove the necessity for deaf people to inhabit the same physical space as the person with whom they are communicating. In other ways it will reinforce the idea of a separate deaf culture and language and will extend the borders of deaf culture to a global village including both deaf and hearing people.

The language which is used in SMS AlHasa community is spoken Arabic language. They usually use ungrammatical sentences to convey their message which are always short and direct. I believe that it is a good opportunity for them to practice their Arabic language.

Sign language

Sign language is the first language of a group of people who do not use a spoken language with each other. Whenever communities of deaf exist, sign languages develop. Their complex special grammars are markedly different from the grammars of spoken languages. Sign languages are as rich and complex as any oral language, despite the common misconception that they are not real languages. Professional linguists have studied many sign languages and found them to have every linguistic component required to be classed as true languages.

Signs are usually arbitrary and do not necessarily have a visual relationship to their referent. A common misconception is that sign languages are somehow dependent on oral languages. In fact, they are unrelated to spoken languages and have different grammatical structures at their core.

Arabic sign language

According to Abdel Fattah (2005) sign language in the Arab World has been recently recognized and documented. Many efforts have been made to establish the sign language used in individual countries, including Jordan, Egypt, Libya, and the Gulf States, by trying to standardize the language and spread it among members of the Deaf community and those concerned. Such efforts produced many sign languages, almost as many as Arabic-speaking countries, yet with the same sign alphabets. This article gives a tentative account of some sign languages in Arabic through reference to

their possible evolution, which is believed to be affected by the diglossic situation in Arabic, and by comparing  some aspects of certain sign languages (Jordanian, Palestinian, Egyptian, Kuwaiti, and Libyan) for which issues such as primes, configuration, and movement in addition to other linguistic features are discussed. A contrastive account that depicts the principal differences among Arabic sign languages in general and the spoken language is given.

Arabic sign languages (ARSLs) are still in their developmental stages. Only in recent years has there been an awareness of the existence of communities consisting of individuals with disabilities; the Deaf are not an exception. Arab Deaf communities are almost closed ones. Interaction between a Deaf community and a hearing one is minimal and is basically concentrated around families with deaf members and

Relatives of the deaf.

As in other communities, communication with a deaf person is polarized within such circles. This situation has led to the emergence of many local means of sign communication. Until recently, such signs have not been gathered or codified. Signs are starting to spread, forming acknowledged sign languages. By and large, the view held vis-a`-vis disability, including hearing, in the Arab society is still one of accommodation rather than assimilation.

It has been suggested that American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL), and Danish Sign Language (DSL) have diglossic features (Deuchar,1977; Lawson, 1981; Stokoe, 1969).

The situation in Arabic is different. Although Arabic is diglossic, ARSLs are not. It was expected that there would be one sign language in Arabic instead of many. People and scholars outside the Deaf communities cannot appreciate the idea of having other sign language vernaculars in such a way similar to the status quo—having so many vernaculars in spoken Arabic instead of one standard form. Therefore, attempts, which have not been successful, are now being made to develop one standard variety of ARSL.

The Arabic finger spelling alphabet appears to be replacing an older system that resembles cued speech and is based on the sounds of the Arabic language. Finger spelling alphabet is used mainly to spell names and unfamiliar words. The Arabic finger spelling alphabet appears to be used increasingly in different Arab countries, with some slight modifications. For an important part, the shapes of the letters are based on the written form of the Arabic letters. For instance, the hand shape for the letter baa has one finger extended because the written letter has only one dot, the taa has two fingers extended because the written letter has two dots.

Most deaf in AlHasa community prefer to use a descriptive sign rather than finger spelling when they want to refer to someone. They rely on the most observable physical characteristic a person has like a scar or a certain haircut. They may only use finger spelling when they say their names when you ask them. For example, they use finger spelling alphabet when they say their names and when they talk about someone they use the most observable characteristic that a person has like being tall, fat, having a scar etc.

Arabic has an influence on the sign language. Deaf people tend to use mouthing of Arabic words to different degrees. The use of mouthing depends on their knowledge of spoken Arabic as well as the degree of their hearing loss. Mouthing of Arabic words tends to be used more when deaf people sign to hearing people than when deaf people sign to each other. The word order of the sentence used by deaf is similar to word order of spoken Arabic. According to Abdel Fattah (2005) generally, ARSLs do not follow the same order of their spoken or written counterparts. Usually, Arabic sign languages are similar to other sign languages of the world in that they are basically spatial–gestural languages. This makes it difficult to compare sign languages with their spoken counterparts; Arabic in this regard is not an exception. As a matter of fact, many concepts used to describe spoken languages are inadequate for the description of sign languages. Nevertheless, inevitably, one system should be mapped practically into the other.

Generally, ARSLs do not follow the same order of their spoken or written counterparts. Usually, a reversed order is used. This is because sign languages are highly thematized and indeed more pragmatics than the spoken ones. In Arabic, emphasis is given to content signs, those representing nouns and verbs. The nominal ‘‘sentence’’ is usually made up from a subject and a predicate, such as ‘‘she/he deaf ’’ (Suwed, 1984).

Attitude towards language

It is important to mention that language attitudes affect learning sign language. Mc Donough (1981) points out that it is quite possible to consider the favorable attitude to the language simply as a result of success in its use.

Attitudes towards deafness are notoriously difficult to deal with. Schrroedel and Schiff claim that deaf respondents were significantly more negative in attitude towards deafness than hearing respondents. Deaf people also imagined hearing people to hold more negative attitudes than they actually did. This is mirrored in a survey by Bunting (1981) in the UK, where it appears that the general public holds some realistic and generally favorable view of deaf people even though there is no understanding of the language needs of prelingually deaf people. Kyle (1981) was unable to show any consistent pattern of attitudes to the deaf community as related to sign language.    I conducted a study to determine my students’ attitudes towards sign language. I interviewed fifty students asking them about their attitudes towards their sign language. Twenty of them said that they do not like their sign language and the Arabic language is better and more important than sign language. They said

that sign language is not important because they do not use it outside the school since hearing people do not understand them. They think that hearing people do not like to communicate with them because they do not understand them. One of the students was really sad when she told me that hearing people do not like their language and they refuse to communicate with them. Another student reported that her society looks down upon her and her language  and that makes her feel shamed when she uses sign language.  Fifteen  said that knowledge of sign language and Arabic are of equal importance in order to associate with both hearing and deaf communities. The remaining fifteen students reported that sign language is more important than Arabic and they like sign language more than Arabic because it is their language. They reported that their sign language is beautiful and they are satisfied with it since they do not have another option to speak another language to know the difference.

Sociolinguistic Variation

Sociolinguistic variation takes into account the fact that the different linguistic variants may correlate with social factors including age, socioeconomic class, gender, ethnic background, region, and sexual orientation. For example, older people may use more of a given variant than younger people; women may use less of a given variant than men; a given variant may occur more in the language used by working-class people than in the language of middle-class users.

In “Sign Language Dialects” Croneberg dealt with sociolinguistic variation, specifically as it pertains to the preparation of a dictionary. He observed, “One of the problems that early confronts the lexicographers of a language is dialect, and this problem is particularly acute when the language has never before been written. They must try to determine whether an item in the language is standard, that is, used by the majority of a given population, or dialect, that is, used by a particular section of the population” (1965, 313). He outlined the difference between what he termed horizontal variation (regional variation) and vertical variation (variation that occurs in the language of groups separated by social stratification) and stated that ASL exhibits both. He then described the results of a study of lexical variation undertaken in North Carolina, Virginia, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont using a 134-item sign vocabulary list. He found that for ASL, the state boun

daries between North Carolina and Virginia also constituted dialect boundaries. North Carolina signs were not found in Virginia and vice versa. He found the three New England states to be less internally standardized (i.e., people within each of the three states exhibited a wide range of variants for each item) and the state boundaries in New England to be much less important, with considerable overlap in lexical choice observed among the three states. Pointing out the key role of the residential schools in the dissemination of dialects, he stated, “At such a school, the young deaf learn ASL in the particular variety characteristic of the local region. The school is also a source of local innovations, for each school generation comes up with some new signs or modifications of old ones” (1965, 314).

Croneberg mentioned the influence of age, ethnicity, gender, religion, and status. His definition of status encompassed economic level, occupation, relative leadership within the deaf community, and educational background. He further noted that professionally employed individuals who were financially prosperous graduates of Gallaudet College “tend to seek each other out and form a group. Frequently they use certain signs that are considered superior to the signs used locally for the same thing. Examples of such signs are Gallaudet signs, transmitted by one or more graduates of Gallaudet who are now teaching at a school for the deaf, and who are members of the local elite. The sign may or may not later be incorporated in the sign language of the local or regional community” (1965, 318).

Finally, Croneberg commented on what a standard sign language might be and stated that “few have paid any attention to the term standard in the sense of ‘statistically most frequent.’ The tendency has been to divide sign language into good and bad” (1965, 318), with older signers and educators of the deaf maintaining the superiority of their respective signs for various reasons. He neatly captured the essence of the difference between prescriptive and descriptive perspectives on language when he wrote, “What signs the deaf population actually uses and what certain individuals consider good signs are thus very often two completely different things” (1965, 319).

There many different causes of variation in sign language used by deaf people in AlHasa community. Variation can occur in the vocabulary of the language. I do not believe that the place that a deaf person comes from plays an important role, since AlHasa is not as large as Riyadh where you can see variation in deaf language according to the place they come from.  I observe that there is some variation according to gender. Some men and women use different signs for many words Bahrain, Tuesday, Wednesday, object ..etc.

I have noticed that age can play an important role in the use of sign language used by deaf individuals in Al-Hasa. Many older signers have their own way of signing which is different from younger signers’. In this case, I can say that age, gender and the level of education are the main factors in sign language variation in Al-Hasa community.


Concerning the importance of sign language, I believe that there is a need to establish centers and clubs where deaf can meet together because this will increase their solidarity and relationship with each other. Breaking down the language barriers may help in decreasing the depression and negative feelings that I noted in my study. And hence it could improve the quality of their life.

The study demonstrates that there is a low attitude towards sign language among deaf student. It is necessary for us as teachers, specialists in education, researchers to work together to change this attitude.

I stress the importance of sign language in improving deaf education and I consider it as a key to deaf students’ success. I suggest if we hire deaf teachers in deaf schools to teach young students sign language from an early stage( kindergarten) this will help them to acquire language in a better way.


Lucas, Ceil, 1995: Sociolinguistics in deaf communities. Gallaudet university press.

M.A.Abdel Fatah, 2005: Arabic sign language: A prescriptive. Oxford journals, 2,3,4.

Bernadet Hendricks, 1994: Jordanian sign language: aspects of grammar from across-linguistic perspective. Amsterdam centre for language communication.

Louis Horstmanshof, 2006: Deaf people communicating via SMS, TTV,relay service, fax and computer in Australia. Oxford Journals.

Ceil Lucas, 2001: Sociolinguistic variation in American sign language. Gallaudet university press.


Abeer Mohammed Almulla

Supervised by: Alaeddin Hussain


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