2. Everything you've always wanted to ask ...

Sign language?

Sign language, is that a real language? Yes. Actually, it is not one language, but many. Each country has its own national sign language and in some countries, more than one sign language.

Only deaf people use sign language?

No. Sign languages originated in communities of deaf people, but now probably more hearing than deaf people learn or use a sign language. Some reports state that American Sign language is now the fourth most taught second language in the USA.

Who invented sign language?

No one did. Sign languages are natural languages that originated in communities of deaf people, centuries ago. Sign languages evolve, change over time, have regional dialects, and subgroups of sign language users develop their own sign vocabularies. But these changes happen as a natural process, in the same way that spoken languages evolve.

Is sign language universal, is it an international language?

Hearing people often say: “Wouldn’t it be much easier, if all sign language users used the same sign language?” 

Well, yes. Then again, it would be even more efficient if all hearing people worldwide would use the same spoken language.  Better yet: if everyone, hearing and deaf, would use the same sign language! But no, we don’t expect that that is going to happen anytime soon.

Who learns sign language?

Many people do. Children who are born in families where sign language is used, learn sign language naturally, in the same way that hearing children acquire the spoken language of their parents. Relatives, friends, colleagues of deaf sign language users often learn to sign. People may learn to sign for their job, for instance to work as a sign language interpreter. In some countries, sign language can be learned in secondary schools and at universities, as a second language.

Learning a sign language is different and exciting: you learn to express yourself without using your voice. Instead, you use your hands, face and body.

Who teaches sign language?

In the past, sign language, or a form of ‘sign supported speech’ was taught by hearing people, often the clergy. In the second half of the last century, deaf people claimed their language and started to teach sign language, themselves. Most of them however had not been trained as a teacher; in most countries, each teacher developed his/her own materials and curriculum.

In some countries this has changed in recent years, and sign language is again taught by hearing teachers. One of the objectives of the SignTeach project and this report was to find out more about these changes.

Can you compare sign languages to spoken minority languages?

Yes and no. Yes, because sign language users are a minority in each country. No, because most minority languages are a majority language in some country or region. The only place where sign language users are in the majority is within the Deaf Community.

Another important difference: most sign language users did not, and in many cases do not, acquire sign language from parent-to-child but from peer-to-peer interaction, or by explicit instruction.

For many deaf people, a visual sign language is the only language that is 100% accessible. This means that sign languages are not only the preferred language of most deaf people, they also constitute a ‘reasonable accommodation’ that makes it possible for deaf people to realize their human rights — civil, political, economic, social, cultural—and to participate on an equal basis in society (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006).

Are sign languages endangered languages?

Again yes and no. In many countries, the number of people who learn a sign language as a first language is shrinking. No, because in many countries, the number of people who learn a sign language as a second language is growing. However, without a sufficient number of native signers, sign languages are at risk of extinction. 

According to Ethnologue (www.ethno-logue.com) most European sign languages are ’developing’ languages (status 5), which means “The language is in vigorous use, with literature in a standardized form being used by some though this is not yet widespread or sustainable.” Yet in some European countries, for instance in Iceland, sign language has the status of ‘threatened’: “The language is used for face-to-face communication within all generations, but it is losing users.” From ’developing’ language to ’threatened’, or vice versa?

Would it be so terrible if sign languages become extinct?

Yes, for several reasons.

  • It is always a bad thing, when a language is no longer used. It is especially bad in the case of sign languages, because sign languages represent a different ‘species’ of languages with very special charac-teristics that are worth preserving.
  • Yes, because sign languages are the only languages that deaf children can acquire naturally, without intervention.
  • And yes, because without sign languages, deaf people are not only deprived of their language, but also of their culture and for many: their identities. And, last but not least: of the ‘reasonable accommodation’ that enables them to realize their human rights and to participate on an equal basis in mainstream society.

What can you do?


Please read this report. Please forward it to colleagues, policymakers, everyone you know, to help us disseminate our message.

EU policymakers:

Please read this report. Find out more about sign language users and sign language teaching in your country. Actively support EU and national actions to promote and support sign language users, sign language teaching.

Sign language teachers and their trainers:

Please read this report. Use the information in this report and on the website to become a better, more professional sign language teacher. Learn from the good examples. Use this report and the SignTeach website as a launching pad for national and transnational collaboration.

Sign language users:

Please read this report. Be proud to be a sign language user. Be a role model for other sign language users. Know that, without sign language users like you, sign languages are at risk of extinction.

Our message?

European sign languages are an inalienable part of Europe’s heritage, culture, and society. In many countries, sign languages are endangered languages and at risk of extinction.

We – all of us - must do everything we can to promote and support sign languages, sign language users, sign language teachers.

www.eud.eu, DECEMBER 2016


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