Sign language and flowers speak to the heart

Imagine a life in which a child never hears a sound or . . . a word. Many deaf children in remote villages of PNG grow up without learning any words, sometimes not even knowing their names. Childrenwith hearing loss may be labelled as unteachable and are often not sent to school.

“This misunderstanding has caused deaf people to be marginalized or excluded from the society, which is absolutely unnecessary. Sign language users are not mentally disabled; the only difference is that they just use their hands and eyes to communicate instead of using their voices and ears,” says Nathalie S. Juhonewe.


Nathalie, who is deaf herself, came from Sweden as a botanical researcher. She surveys the ancient forests of Papua New Guinea in order to collect and conserve the country’s great diverse “hoyas,” or wax plants. These beautiful plants are found in remote areas of PNG and Nathalie believes there are still many species that have not been documented. Recently she found a new species in her husband’s village.


Nathalie’s research helps initiate relationships with deaf people in remote areas around PNG. Involving the Deaf in her research helps her to learn how they communicate within their local communities. This information is invaluable to those who are trying to determine the best methods of helping people with hearing loss challenges in PNG. An estimated 3% of any rural community may be deaf. Thus, over 210,000 deaf individuals may be living in PNG.


Nathalie and her deaf Papua New Guinean husband, Foreting, also want to help meet the deaf community’s spiritual needs. People who are deaf often come to church with their families, but don't understand what is being spoken. One of the most frequent questions asked of Nathalie is, “Please, ‘you who can sign our language’, can you tell us who is God and why are people going to His house every week?”


SIL Global Sign Languages Team (SIL GLST) was formed to support sign language translators as they work in language development and Bible translation for the Deaf communities all over the world. Translating signed languages does not mean typing words on a page, but instead creating videos or using SignWriting (a standardised way to write signs). Nathalie is a Sign Language Survey Specialist and is also a Consultant-in-Training for SIL GLST here in Papua New Guinea.



Nathalie and Foreting understand the difficulties that deaf people experience, having visited nearly all the deaf schools and urban communities in PNG. They have seen the need for a sign language book that would help parents and families to easily acquire basic skills in PNG sign language, and are working as consultants for Callan Services, which runs almost all of PNG's deaf schools, assisting them in the creation of this sign language training book.


“Learning sign language at an early age leads to self-esteem and children fluent in their heart language.”

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