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Sign bilingualism: sociolinguistic aspects

Language has consequence. (Bialystok 2007:393)

Most of the world’s speech communities are multilingual with varying types and degrees of bilingualism (cf. Baker 2001; Grosjean 1982; Romaine 1996; Siguan 2001).

Given that bilingualism is a reality for the greater part of the world population the question arises as to whether and how linguistic resources are organised at the socio-political level. Sociolinguistic studies over the last decades have shown that language contact situations are not treated alike by political and educational institutions. As pointed out by Romaine (2004: 391) conceptions of bilingual education differ markedly depending on whether they target majority or minority populations within nation-states. This variation makes it apparent that differences in language planning measures reflect the symbolic value of the languages affected and the unequal distribution of power in a given society. Because language is regarded as one of the most powerful guarantors for social cohesion, multilingualism in speakers of non-territorial languages (mostly with a migration background) is associated with a potential for socio-political conflicts that would derive from a lack of integration into the mainstream society. The language of exclusion that becomes apparent in notions used to refer to minority languages and their users, such as non-territorial, non-regional, non-indigenous, or non-European reflect a “restrictive interpretation of the notions of citizenship and nationality” (Extra 2007: 179).

While the linguistic capital of a changing demography continues to be largely ignored, if not suppressed, the promotion of multilingualism as a commodity or qualification is on the agenda of educational authorities in many countries worldwide, as social and economic advantages are attributed to the ability to use various prestige languages. Clearly, the inconsistency that becomes apparent in policies adopted toward different types of bilingualism reflects the symbolic and economic value attributed to languages and the status of their speakers. Crucially, the apparent discrepancy in the socio-political response to the abilities and needs of bilingual individuals needs to be considered when it comes to generalised attributions of success or failure in the raising of bilingual children.

In the following sections, we will introduce the main criteria used to distinguish different types of bilingualism and language planning measures targeting languages in a given social space. This will provide us with the necessary framework to discern the factors that affect the development and maintenance of sign bilingualism at the societal level.

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