Sign Languages are “Real” Languages and it’s Time to Recognise Them

This month we published The Legal Recognition of Sign Languages edited by Maartje De Meulder, Joseph J. Murray and Rachel L. McKee. In this post, and the accompanying video at the end, the editors explain why this book is so important.

With cover art by Deaf artist, Nancy Rourke

Since the 1990s, when Finland and Uganda were the first countries to give their sign languages legal status in law, many countries have followed suit or are still campaigning to achieve recognition of their national sign language(s) in legislation. Until now, these campaigns and their outcomes have remained understudied: why have deaf communities felt that it was necessary to achieve legal status for their sign languages? How does this status relate to that of spoken languages in a specific country? Who was involved in the campaigns? Were there specific strategies used to achieve certain outcomes? Did the legislation have any effect and if so, what kind of effect? Some of these questions have been discussed in separate journal articles or book chapters, but a comprehensive overview and analysis of these laws and campaigns was lacking until now.

Our new book has partly filled this gap. It appears in a context of increasing interest in sign language rights, both among academics and within deaf community discourses. For example, the theme of the upcoming World Federation of the Deaf conference in Paris will be “Sign Language Rights for All”, Norway is preparing a Language Act and draft legislation for Sign Language of the Netherlands will soon be introduced.

The book contains 18 chapters discussing the situation of diverse countries in Europe, USA, South America and Asia. Chapters discuss how countries achieved legal status for sign language, and the state of implementation. This book does not just focus on sign languages; chapter authors discuss the status of the national sign language(s) in relation to laws and policies for spoken languages, and certain ideologies about languages.

While some chapters discuss very recent sign language laws, other chapters look back and assess impact. Other chapters discuss ongoing campaigns. All together, they illustrate the different ways that sign language laws are implemented and managed by governments and deaf communities. For some countries, this book is the first time that the information is available in English.

The campaigns which are the focus of this book were often led by national deaf associations working in partnership with academics in sign language linguistics or Deaf Studies. Since many of these campaigns took place in the past decade, key activists are still involved, and in the book we have actively encouraged academic/community collaborations. All chapters are joint writing efforts of deaf and hearing academics and language activists active in campaigning, researching, or policy work.

The word ‘recognition’ in the book’s title reveals a unique aspect of campaigns for the legal status of sign languages. In most cases it refers to the ‘recognition’ or acknowledgement by governments that sign languages are languages. This concern about sign languages’ status as ‘real’ tends not to occur with other minority languages and is linked to a long history of sign languages being seen as inferior, not ‘real’ languages.

By now, we know that sign languages are languages and the time has come to focus on what it means to effectively recognize those languages and their speakers. This is also the main take-away message of this book: legal status in itself, while often presented as such, is not a panacea. It’s not an end point, but merely a beginning. It is only one part of the bigger picture that alters the status of a language.

We hope this book helps elucidate the process of the legal recognition of sign languages, shows how this is similar or different from other minority language laws, and guides other countries in their campaigns and reflections about future directions.

 

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Understanding Deaf Culture by Paddy Ladd.

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