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Sign language planning

As a result of grass-roots pressure of deaf associations and related interest groups, administrations in several countries have been confronted with issues concerning language planning activities targeting sign languages and their users. Crucially, the recognition of the deaf community as a linguistic minority group involves a change in the status attributed to a group of people hitherto categorised as a disability group. This development is based on a socio-anthropological and cultural deaf rhetoric departing radically from a pathological view that regards deafness as a deficit that needs to be remedied. To date, however, although sign languages have been recognised in the legislations of several countries (see section 0), both views of deafness continue to coexist at the political level. As we shall learn later on (section 1.3), these opposite views also translate into two irreconcilable positions when it comes to the education of deaf students. However, only a comprehensive view of deafness will do justice to the complexity of the deaf communities, and by extension, sign bilingualism. As pointed out by Woll and Ladd (2003: 157)

[t]o define deaf people simply as disabled is to overlook the linguistic foundation of their collective life. To define them as a linguistic group is to overlook the very real sensory characteristics of their existence, both positive (a unique visual apprehension of the world out which sign languages have been constructed), and negative (communication barriers are not simply linguistic, but auditory, too).

Turning to the language planning measures specifically targeting sign languages and their users, it is useful to categorise activities based on the distinction outlined in section 1.2.3. Table 1.1 provides a summary of the language planning activities of deaf leaders and related interest groups, on the one hand, and the administrations, on the other hand.

Table 1.1: Sign language planning: types and activities.

Type of planning



- Status planning

- To raise the status of the language

  • - Campaigning for official/legal recognition of sign language
  • - Use of the language in the public sphere

- Corpus planning

- To expand the language and its social functions

  • - Development of teaching/learning materials and dictionaries
  • - Use of the language in the media
  • - Interpreter training / provision

- Acquisition planning

- To include the language in the education of deaf students

- Development of bilingual education conceptions, curricula and teacher training measures

The comparison of sign language planning activities across diverse social contexts reveals many commonalities. As explained previously, sign languages are minority languages with no written tradition; typically, they exhibit a high degree of regional variation. To date only few sign languages have been investigated regarding their grammatical properties. Sign language teaching grammars are available for only a few sign languages worldwide. Sign language dictionaries continue to be equally rare. Therefore, the codification of the language, the creation of material and the training of sign language teachers are among the tasks that are tackled in language planning targeting sign languages.

As for the impact of sign language planning measures, several scholars have been concerned with the question of whether the steps taken are really doing justice to the linguistic and educational needs of deaf individuals (Cokely 2005; Gras 2008; Morales-Lopez 2008; Reagan 2001; Van Herreweghe 2004). Another controversial issue concerns the participants in the activities (administration, deaf leaders, deaf associations, related interest groups). Abstracting away from the more local problems, the studies conducted in various social contexts reveal similar shortcomings of language planning measures in four major areas, namely,

(a) official recognition, (b) standardisation, (c) interpretation, and (d) education. In this section, we will briefly sketch some of the major shortcomings pertaining to status, standardisation and interpretation. A more in-depth discussion of the status of sign language in deaf education is elaborated in subsequent sections.

Status. Sign languages are recognised as minority languages only in a few countries. They are often banned from educational institutions and their maintenance is threatened by the creation of artificial manual codes for the purpose of the teaching of the oral/written language (see section 1.3.2).[1] The stigmatisation of sign language goes along with the predominance of the oral/written language as the language of political, cultural, and economic power (cf. Grosjean 1992). The overall situation described has been challenged by the gradual self-assertion of deaf individuals and a growing public awareness of sign language in the hearing community.

The recognition of sign languages in the legislation of many European countries represents a crucial step in the provision of the legal and political framework relevant to the inclusion of sign language in deaf education (cf. Plaza-Pust 2004; Skutnabb-Kangas 1994) and service provision (e.g. sign language interpretation).[2] It should be noted, however, that changes at the legal level concerning the recognition of sign language do not always have the expected effects. In

France, for example, the 1991 Act granted parents of deaf children free choice of the language used in the education of their children, but did not stipulate that any concrete measures be taken, either concerning the provision of this option or with respect to the organisation of bilingual teaching where it was being offered (Mugnier 2006: 150). Aarons and Reynolds (2003: 201) describe a similar situation in South Africa where the 1996 South African Schools Act stipulates that South African Sign Language be used as the language of instruction.

Despite the little advances that have been made at this level, progress can be observed with regard to the presence of sign language and their users in the public sphere. Based on a survey of the status of sign language in deaf education in Europe, Plaza-Pust (2004, 2016) highlights some of major changes that can be observed in this respect, including (a) an increase of hearing L2 sign language learners (changes in attitude towards sign language by members of the hearing communities are reflected in a growing demand on and interest in sign language courses), (b) an extended research body dedicated to the study of sign languages and deaf culture (contributing to a better understanding of sign languages, their structure and their relevance for the cognitive and social development of the deaf child), (c) a growing amount of publications on sign languages, including dictionaries, grammar textbooks, and other teaching material, (d) an improvement of the situation in the service area (for example, concerning the provision of sign language interpreter services and the inclusion of sign language in the media).

Standardisation. Among the most controversial language planning measures are those that affect the development of the language (corpus planning).[3] Regarding sign languages, which have been typically used in informal contexts, with a high degree of regional variation, factors that have created a demand for the development of new terminology and registers include the professionalisa- tion of the interpreting profession, the increase of interpreter service provision in schools and other public spheres, and the teaching of sign languages to deaf students and other hearing learners (Gras 2008; Van Herreweghe 2004).

Standardisation processes following from a functional expansion of the language often affect communication in sign language-oral language contact situations (cf. Gras 2008). Communication problems may arise in classroom settings (e.g. between sign language interpreters and students). Standardisation efforts might not be effective as materials developed might not really be used (cf. Johnston 2003; Yang 2008) or used at a local level only, and ethical dilemmas might arise when interpreters are confronted with the choice among different varieties of the language (Gras 2008).

Interpretation. Sign language interpretation is perhaps one of the areas that reflects best the impact of language planning activities regarding the expansion of the language and its functions. Gras’ (2008) analysis of sign language planning processes in Spain reveals the discrepancy between bottom-up activities (concerning the recognition of sign language and its inclusion in deaf education) and top-down activities (focused on the training and provision of sign language interpretation). According to this author, the standardisation process of sign language that has run parallel to the recognition of interpretation as a profession has largely ignored the community of sign language users, with the effect that

(a) communication problems arise between professionals and service consumers and (b) consumers’ demands for where this service is needed do not (always) match with the contexts in which it is actually provided. Similar contradictory processes have been documented for other countries, as for example, the Netherlands (de Wit & Crasborn 2004).

Models of sign language planning. In their critical appraisal of language planning activities targeting sign languages, scholars generally agree that the type of activities undertaken and their eventual impact depend on (a) the agents involved and (b) the extent to which the planning processes are coordinated. Based on the models of language planning identified in section we can distinguish three main language planning scenarios according to the agents involved and the activities taken. The key characteristics of these scenarios are summarised in Table 1.2.

Table 1.2: Language planning scenarios.



Activities / aims


- administration

  • - policies and planning activities
  • • to facilitate accessibility
  • • to facilitate integration


  • - language community
  • - related interest groups
  • - political demands and planning activities
  • • to obtain political attention
  • • to raise the status of the language


- all agents

  • - analysis of the needs of all parties
  • - objectives and outcomes of measures studied in relation to broader social context
  • - coordination of measures and activities to meet the needs of the users

A comparison of the developments across countries reveals how language planning targeting sign languages can be described along the categories identified. For example, in Flanders, language planning activities targeting Flemish Sign Language (VGT) occurred upon the initiative of the Flemish deaf association. One of the main aims of the bottom-up type of planning activities was the codification of VGT (Ver- meerbergen & Herreweghe 2004). In the Netherlands, a top-down model of sign language planning was adopted upon the initiative of the Dutch government. The government established the standardisation of Sign Language of the Netherlands (NGT) as a requisite for its official recognition, which then affected the use of the language in schools and interpreter training (Schermer 2004). Finally, in China, individual sign language users were involved in the creation of a unified sign language dictionary (Yang 2008), a project that was conducted by the Deaf Sign Language Reform Committee. Hence, this is a case of top-down language planning. Although the vocabulary of the dictionary is used in official contexts (for example, by interpreters of television news, and officers in disability service agencies), the expectations about the use of the language by the signing population have not been met which calls for a precise analysis of the causes that rendered this process unsuccessful (in contrast to the relatively successful implementation of standard Chinese).

Despite the specific or more local variables tied to individual social contexts, studies on sign language planning in diverse countries coincide in their conclusion that both bottom-up and top-down activities are necessary for the maintenance of sign bilingualism and its recognition on a par with the bilingualism of other linguistic groups (Morales-Lopez 2008; Gras 2008; Krausneker 2008; Yang 2008). According to Gras (2006: 200; 2008) sign language planning should work toward the community’s stability -in danger because of mainstream education- and the deaf community’s access to information and autonomy (“the users’ literacy”). Following a holistic approach, sign language planning would be characterised by co-ordinated action and involvement of all actors (Gras 2008; Morales-Lopez 2008). Where this is not the case, measures might be taken that represent political “concessions” to the pressure groups (deaf associations, educational professionals, parents of deaf children), often made with little understanding of the requisites and effects of the steps taken.

Furthermore, the broader social context needs to be taken into consideration. Plaza-Pust and Morales-Lopez (2008: 341, cf. Morales-Lopez 2008) envisage a model that takes into consideration the realistic understanding of linguistic rights elaborated in the domain of ethnographic sociolinguistics. An analysis of sign language planning measures along these lines has to take into account the characteristics of the sociopolitical context and what is considered to represent the true power of the oralist tradition, namely, the political forces opposed to the public inclusion of sign language. As they remark (Plaza-Pust & MoralesLopez 2008: 341), “both the proposals and the expectations have to be progressive and in agreement with the socio-political reality.”

  • [1] Linguistic assimilation has been the fate of many minority languages around the globe. Aspointed out by Romaine (1996: 593), "the traditional policy, either implicitly assumed or explicitly stated, that most nations have pursued with regard to various minority groups who speak adifferent language has been eradication of the native language and culture and assimilation intothe majority one.” However, as Hyltenstamm (1994: 305) remarks "the abandonment of a signlanguage and shift to a majority oral language is in this way an even greater evil than the oppression of oral linguistic minorities, if indeed this evil can at all be graded.”
  • [2] On a critical note, while the notion of legal (or official) recognition is commonly used in theliterature, it should be noted that it is used as a generic term to refer to different forms of recognition in the legislation (ranging from its recognition as an official language in the country’sconstitution, to its recognition as a language of instruction in deaf education in more specificbills pertaining to special education).
  • [3] One of the most controversial developments at the level of language planning concerns thecreation of signed systems. This case of language intervention is discussed in section 1.2.3.
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