6. Conclusions and Recommendations

In the country reports, you have read about the history of sign language teaching in Europe. The interviews with the experts and the results of the SignTeach Survey give useful insights into the present situation. Of course, what we are really interested in, is the future. All people who we consulted told us about their concerns for the future. But can we agree on a ‘roadmap’ so that we all go in the same, right direction?

First, a bird’s eye view of sign languages and sign language teaching through the ages. Where do we come from? We all seem to be travelling the same road, although some countries travel faster than others.

1: Sign languages, deaf-owned ‘undiscovered’ languages

Until not so very long ago, sign languages were used within small and larger communities of deaf people for everyday communication. Hearing family members learned sign language from their deaf relatives, deaf children acquired sign language informally from deaf peers and deaf adults.  Sign languages were not formally taught as first or foreign languages, they were not studied or described. They were ‘owned’ by the users -  people who were deaf from birth - and ignored, looked down upon or plainly invisible to everyone outside of the Deaf community.

2: Sign languages: a hearing owned communication ‘tool’

Then hearing people, usually the clergy wanting to save deaf ‘souls’, became involved. They used signs as a communication tool to reach and teach deaf people. They looked at signs from a hearing perspective: a tool to communicate with deaf people, a tool to teach deaf people to read and write the spoken language, and maybe to speak and lipread. A tool to make deaf people and sign language fit the hearing moulds that were current at the time.

Teachers were ignorant of the syntax and grammar of the sign language as it was used by deaf people amongst themselves. Some hearing teachers developed their own sign ‘systems’ to match the hearing language – at word-level, and sometimes even at the level of morphemes. Literally ignoring the meaning of the word and the existing sign language lexicon. The word ‘butterfly’ for instance would be signed as two signs: BUTTER + FLY = flying butter! The word ‘understand’: UNDER + STAND = standing under! These examples are often quoted to show how ridiculous these attempts were, and how naïve (and patronizing) the persons who designed these systems. In the country reports, several authors mention ‘sign supported speech (Signed English, Signed German, Sign Supported Dutch, etc.). These sign supported speech systems are less extreme examples of how the lexicon of sign languages is used as a ‘tool’ to communicate with deaf people and to teach them the spoken language. 

3: Sign languages: deaf-owned languages, discovered and charted by linguists

Hearing linguists, starting with Bernard Tervoort and William C. Stokoe discovered the sign languages used within deaf communities and from the 1950’s on began to describe and study these languages as true explorers. They respected sign languages and sign language users. They didn’t try to change or ‘improve’ sign language, but employed native deaf sign language users as informants. Slowly but surely, sign languages became visible and respected as equal to spoken languages.

Sign language interpreter became a paid profession. Before, family members of deaf people had interpreted informally; now, interpreting required proper training, accreditation and registration.

Proper training, usually by hearing and deaf teachers, teaching in tandem: deaf people taught communication and everyday language use, hearing people taught linguistics, ethics, and other theoretical subjects. In many countries, deaf native signers did not – do not – have the qualifications required to teach at higher level education. They were employed as teaching assistants, or some other way was found to bypass the missing qualifications.

Universities started to research, then teach sign linguistics. At first: by hearing researchers, but slowly but surely also by deaf researchers. Sign languages became a respectable research subject. Deaf sign language users became teachers, researchers, and interpreters, equal to their hearing colleagues. 

4: Sign languages: a ‘reasonable accommodation’ for deaf people, but at the same time: languages in their own right.

In most countries of Europe, sign languages are now seen as equal to spoken languages. Maybe not by law, but in practice they are treated as minority languages, equal to spoken minority languages. Used on television, in courts, at universities. Treated as ‘reasonable accommodation’ whenever accessibility is at stake, but also taught at all levels of education to people who are interested in sign languages in their own right.

More and more often: taught by teachers who now have to meet mainstream qualification and accreditation criteria for teaching languages.

Sign language curricula now follow mainstream developments and are being rewritten to fit the CEFR, with its focus on communication instead of (or in addition to) grammar and syntax.

Quality standards for sign language teachers, accreditation and registration, CPD (continuous professional development) are recommended by many of the people who we consulted.

All is well?

So all is well? No. As this report shows, all is not well. We are in the middle of a process of change:

  1. The status of sign languages has changed. Sign languages have joined the mainstream and are now comparable to spoken minority languages. If not (yet) by law, then in daily practice. If not now, then soon. Sign languages are no longer the ‘private’ property of the Deaf community.
  2. The market for sign language teaching has changed. Fewer parents and teachers of deaf children learn to sign, whereas the general public and hearing students now do. Like sign languages, sign language teaching has joined the mainstream. As a result, the requirements for sign language teachers have changed. If not (yet) by law, then in daily practice.

However, sign language teachers – again, in general - have NOT changed. In many European countries, the majority of the sign language teachers are 40+, they have been teaching sign language (in the same way?) for decades.

They find it difficult to meet the needs of the new target groups, of meeting the requirements of mainstream education.

In most European countries, few young deaf people are interested in becoming a sign language teacher. Sign language teachers have NOT joined the mainstream. Yet. 

Because of the ’mainstreaming’ of sign languages and sign language teaching: more and more often sign languages are taught at a remove from the deaf community and deaf culture. Teachers may be hearing people who learned sign language as a foreign language. The sign language that is taught may be a ’standardized’ or ’sanitized’ version of sign language—instead of what Andreas Costrau (page 66) calls the BIO version of sign language.  

The way forward?

Many people who we consulted expressed their concerns. This is the first step: to be aware that all is not well, that action is needed. Fortunately, most people who we consulted agree on the way forward:

  • We need quality standards, accreditation, and registration of sign language teachers equal to what is required for teachers of spoken languages in each of our countries.
  • We need training options for sign language teachers, both initial training and CPD, similar to what is available to teachers of spoken languages in each of our countries.
  • We need payment and career opportunities for sign language teachers, equal to what is available to teachers of spoken languages in each of our countries.

In short: sign languages teachers and the training of sign language teachers must become mainstream, too. Even though mainstreaming may have unwanted side effects, there is no way back.

Advocates & Watchdogs

Therefore, we also very much need advocates & watchdogs.

Advocates: sign language users, teachers, researchers who show the mainstream the added value of sign languages for language teaching, for research, for life.

Watchdogs: sign language users, sign language teachers, sign language researchers who make sure that joining the mainstream does NOT result in submersion, or in diluting what is unique to sign languages, to sign language users, to sign language teachers.

Equal yes, but different too.


We wrote this report for policy-makers. Policy makers at EU level, but also at national level. At the last consortium meeting of the SignTeach consortium, partners discussed recommendations. What can policymakers do, to promote and support sign languages and sign language learning in Europe, in the EU member states?

We looked at recommendations of earlier projects and initiatives. Many of those are still valid! We could have ended this report with many pages filled with recommendations of earlier projects and experts!  Instead, we posted them on a website: www.signlanguagewatch.eu.

We also came up with recommendations of our own. The list kept growing, and growing.

But we are teachers. We know that policymakers are busy, have little time and short attention spans. We know that long lists are not effective.

So instead, we present you with just one recommendation—or maybe it is a request.

Easy to remember, just 3 words that you can use, always and everywhere.

Whenever you say or write anything about languages – policy, planning, rights, teaching, legislation, learning, funding, never mind what –

... include SIGN LANGUAGES!

German? Include German Sign Language.

Portuguese? Include Portuguese Sign Language, etc.

Language learning?
... include SIGN LANGUAGES!

Language teaching?
... include SIGN LANGUAGES!

Language policy?
... include SIGN LANGUAGES!

Say it to yourself, or better yet, say it out loud.Add a note or correction to each text or memorandum about languages that you are asked to review, approve or sign:

... include SIGN LANGUAGES!

Please repeat? Please remember?



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