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Sign language is our rightful mother tongue

Child using sign language

daveynin under a Creative Commons Licence

Minority languages around the world are under threat – and that includes sign languages.

British Sign Language (BSL), for example, has only around 1,000 deaf children who use it ‘to some extent’, from a potential of approximately 42,000 deaf children in Britain. All languages, spoken or signed, are at imminent risk if there is no intergenerational transmission from parent to child, as stated by Joshua Fishman, renowned linguist and the instigator of a scale to measure at what level of endangerment languages are fixed, and how to address the problem. Since only approximately 5 per cent of parents of deaf children are themselves deaf, this means that all sign languages are automatically at risk unless steps are taken to ensure transmission from one generation to the next.

Some countries have legally recognized their sign language(s), but this has not made a significant impact: legal recognition has not led to practices which facilitate their transmission. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states that all Member States must recognize and promote their sign languages, but this, again, is insufficient without a well devised language plan.

The Deaf Ex-Mainstreamers Group (DEX) has developed a language plan for BSL. It measured the usage of BSL, to identify the level of endangerment, and found that it is severely endangered. At the LAUD 36th International Symposium at the University of Landau in Germany in April 2014, distinguished linguists eminent in the field of language planning conceded that BSL is indeed severely endangered, and that sign languages should be included in the list of endangered spoken languages.

There are other reasons for BSL’s demise in terms of the numbers of future users. These include the fact that deaf people are viewed as disabled, whereas congenitally and early deafened people are in fact a language community; sign language is our natural language, just as spoken language is appropriate for hearing people. The DEX language plan addresses these issues.

Attempts to make deaf people ‘hearing’ with technical aids and aides to hearing, such as digital hearing aids and cochlear implants, are only appropriate in order to enable deaf people to learn spoken language for some assimilation into the hearing society.

At the same time it is vital to acknowledge that, for some deaf people, sign language is the main, and maybe only, language, since spoken language is too inaccessible for them. For those deaf people who have useful hearing with aids/aides, spoken language is still incomplete with respect to learning and communicating, and sign language is therefore an essential part of the whole lifelong learning package for us.

Finally, sign language is our rightful mother tongue and means of communicating fluently with other deaf people, and with hearing people who live and work with us. The banning and prevention of deaf children from a high level of quality exposure to BSL, and other sign languages, is a violation of human and linguistic rights.     

Jill Jones is Company Secretary for Deaf Ex-Mainstreamers Group Facebook: DEX Perience

For more on endangered languages, see the June 2014 issue of New Internationalist: Save our Speech! The politics of Language Loss.