In a small village in the north of Bali called Bengkala, relatively many people inherit deafness. The Balinese therefore refer to this village as Desa Kolok, which means 'deaf village'. Connie de Vos studied Kata Kolok, the sign language of this village, and the ways in which the language recruits space to talk about both spatial and non-spatial matters. he small village community Bengkala in the north of Bali has almost 3,000 inhabitants. Of all the inhabitants, 57% use sign language, with varying degrees of fluency. But of this signing community (between 1,200 and 1,800 signers, depending on your definition of 'signer'), only 4% are deaf. So, not only do the deaf people of Bengkala use the sign language Kata Kolok, but also the majority of the hearing population.
"I've worked with deaf people from all over Asia, Europe, and also some signers in America," says Connie de Vos of MPI's Language and Cognition Department, and Centre for Language Studies (RU). "What sets apart this particular deaf village is that deaf individuals are highly integrated within the village clans. There is really a huge proportion of hearing signers." The sign language currently functions in all major aspects of village life and has been acquired from birth by multiple generations of deaf, native signers. According to De Vos, Kata Kolok is a fully-fledged sign language in every sense of the word. As a collaborative project, she has initiated inclusive deaf education within the village and now Kata Kolok is used as the primary language of instruction. De Vos' primary finding is that Kata Kolok discourse uses a different system of referring to space than other sign languages. Spatial relations are represented by a so-called "absolute frame of reference", based on geographic locations and wind directions. "All sign languages, as we know, use relative constructions for spatial relations. They use signs comparable to words like 'left' and 'right' instead of 'east' and 'west'. Kata Kolok does the latter. Kata Kolok signers appear to have an internal compass to continually register their position in space."De Vos is the first sign linguist who has documented Kata Kolok extensively. She spent more than a year in the village and collected over a hundred hours of video material of spontaneous conversations. "One of the things I've noticed is that language doesn't really emerge out of nothing," she says. "Signers adopt a local gesture system and transform it into a new and much more systematic sign language. A lot of the signs refer to concepts they're familiar with. That's why hearing signers have no difficulties in picking up Kata Kolok. Kata Kolok unites the hearing and the deaf.