Hilde Nyffels has a wide experience in teaching. She started teaching Nederlands met Gebaren (‘Signed Dutch’) in 1994, but for over 20 years now, she has been teaching Flemish Sign Language (Vlaamse Gebarentaal or VGT). Currently, she combines two jobs: she works for Fevlado-Diversus (the Flemish Deaf Association) where she is responsible (among other things) for training and supporting deaf Flemish Sign Language teachers and for the development of teaching materials. She also works for the VSPW (a CVO, i.e. centre for continuing education), where she teaches Flemish Sign Language courses. Hilde has always strongly invested in her own continuing education and professional development – and continues to do so.
What, in your opinion, are the strengths / weaknesses of the current system in your country?
In Flanders, there are different options for (hearing) adults who want to learn Flemish Sign Language. There are the more extensive, formal courses, for example, those organised at centres for continuing education, where students are required to take an exam at the end of each course. But there also exist more informal, smaller-scale courses, organised by Fevlado-Diversus. These are open to anyone who is interested in wanting to learn (about) Flemish Sign Language and Deaf culture and there are no exams or tests. I feel it is really good to have different types of courses, different opportunities. Some people simply want an introduction to Flemish Sign Language and Deaf culture, nothing too extensive or formal.
What is lacking in Flanders are tailor-made courses and training: Flemish Sign Language courses targeting specific groups, such as healthcare professionals (e.g. nurses, geriatric assistants ...), civil servants (receptionists, administrative clerks - people who often get in touch with the public, police officers too) … In my opinion, such courses could be organised by centres for continuing education (CVOs).
Unfortunately, in Flanders, there is no recognised training program for Flemish Sign Language teachers. Consequently, VGT teachers are not qualified and I really feel that is a significant shortcoming in Flanders.
What I consider to be an additional strength is that we really try hard to engage deaf signers in teaching Flemish Sign Language, in spite of the fact that they have no qualifications.
Can you give us examples of ‘best practice’, in your country?
Not really, but as I said, I very much like the fact that Flemish Sign Language is mostly taught by deaf (native) signers.
Can you tell us about the accreditation of sign language teachers, in your country?
As I mentioned earlier, there is no specific training program for sign language teachers in Flanders, therefore, accreditation is not possible.
Some teachers (especially those teaching at a CVO) do hold some certification. They obtained, for example, a getuigschrift pedagogische bekwaamheid (‘a certificate of pedagogical competence’). They attended such training to gain more insight into didactics.
Others took courses in sign language linguistics and/or the grammar of VGT in order to learn more about VGT as a language. There are also a few deaf teachers who trained to become nursery school teachers or primary school teachers. But the majority of the Flemish Sign Language teachers do not have a certificate or degree related to teaching.
Those teaching for Fevlado-Diversus receive a basic training on the grammar of VGT and didactics. On completion of the training, they get a certificate as proof of attendance.
I myself enrolled in a teacher training program at a centre for continuing education and obtained the ‘certificate of pedagogical competence’. I also took courses in sign language linguistics and the linguistics of Flemish Sign Language at KU Leuven in Antwerp. All that was very enriching, yet I still feel something is missing, something at a higher level.
Can you tell us something about curriculum development in your country? Are curricula based on the CEFR?
At the moment we do not work with CEFR at the CVO where I am employed. However, several teachers went abroad (e.g. to attend conferences such as Lesico …) and we realise it would be good to develop course materials based on the CEFR. We should try and integrate the CEFR into the existing curriculum. This is not straightforward because it involves a lot of work and the team doesn’t really have the time to meet up on a regular basis. Most teachers do not work at the CVO full-time. They combine a part-time position as a teacher with another job, which makes it hard to find opportunities for them to get together.
What, in your opinion, is the way forward, for sign language teaching & the training of SL teachers in your country, and/or in Europe?
1. In Flanders, there are a number of university colleges and universities that provide teacher training programs. Students can decide what kind of teacher they would like to become, e.g. a Dutch and English teacher. Depending on their qualification, a teacher is allowed to teach in a primary school, secondary school or in tertiary education. The programs that exist today do not include opportunities for Flemish Sign Language teachers.
It would be good if there would be at least one university college or university that would offer a program for VGT teachers, in accordance with the program for Dutch teachers. There should be a program at BA level and one at MA level. Students should be offered exchange programs in order to teach or to gain experience abroad and to exchange ideas.
It is also important that teacher’s training programs (at colleges, universities) do not only provide courses on didactics and VGT, but also introduce students to different groups within the Deaf community, such as senior citizens, deaf-blind people, etc. For those who would like to really focus on one particular target group, specific modules should be organised. This should also be included in interpreter training programs.
2. When it comes to offering Flemish Sign Language courses for adult learners, this is my suggestion:
- A vrije gebarencursus (or ‘open sign language course’) for everyone who is interested in learning about VGT as a language and about Deaf culture, and for family members (e.g. aunts, uncles, etc.) of deaf children, or senior citizens ... This type of (informal) course can be organised at a centre for continuing education (CVO) and also by Fevlado-Diversus. However, the teachers should be trained at a higher level. They must have knowledge of didactics, VGT and Deaf culture. Teachers must, therefore, have a bachelor’s degree or a specific degree for teaching VGT in adult education.
- A (more formal) course at a higher level should be taught at a CVO or at university colleges. The target audience of these courses would be hearing people who might come into contact with deaf people, e.g. caregivers, civil servants, parents, deafened people who would like to learn VGT ... These courses should be taught only by teachers who hold a BA or MA degree, i.e. (highly) qualified VGT-teachers.
- A sign language interpreter’s training program has to be organised at a university (MA-level) and not at a centre for continuing education. CVOs should instead focus on organising more customised VGT courses, e.g. aimed at people working in health care (see also above). Professionals working in the social domain are qualified within their own field of expertise but lack proper communication skills with deaf or deaf-blind people. In order to be allowed to teach Flemish Sign Language at a university level, teachers need to have obtained an MA degree.
3. There is a need for a centrally developed curriculum or rather curricula for different levels (as I mentioned earlier) and different target groups, based on the CEFR. Subsequently, course materials need to be developed for these different levels and groups. It would be ideal if an external body could take care of this in order to ensure that teaching levels are standardised across Flanders. This is not the case today, as different institutions interpret the curricula in different ways.
Do you have any recommendations that you want to share with us?
Perhaps in the future, there could be one Master program for European deaf teachers. This could be taught in EuSL, like ASL is used in the United States of America. This is my dream for Europe.
Date of the Interview: May 2017