Sign languages are recognised as indigenous languages of Europe but their use as languages of instruction is highly variable across the continent. An ECML project team is working toward the establishment of European standards for specifying proficiency levels for use in Deaf studies and interpreter education programmes under the auspices of the PRO-Sign project. These will benefit teachers of sign languages, the institutions in which they teach, hearing and deaf students of sign languages, the interpreting profession, and Deaf communities who access public services and crucially, education across the life cycle, via interpretation. (Leeson, June 2014)
Sign languages in Europe
Sign languages are an integral part of Europe’s multilingual diversity. Broadly speaking, each country has its own national sign language; some countries have more than one sign language, e.g. in Finland, both Finnish Sign Language and Finnish-Swedish Sign Language are used, in Switzerland, Swiss-German, Swiss-French and Swiss-Italian Sign Language co-exist. What is critical to note is that the spread of these languages varies, just as it is the case for many of the regional or minority languages of Europe. So, for example, while British Sign Language and Irish Sign Language are to be found on the island of Ireland, Irish Sign Language is prevalent in the Republic of Ireland with British Sign Language being the dominant sign language of Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, Irish Sign Language is predominantly used by members of the Catholic community (Sutton-Spence & Woll 2007). As rich as spoken languages in terms of grammar, structure, syntax and lexicon, sign languages rate among the various linguistic and cultural assets European countries have to offer.
One of the myths that prevail is the idea that there is a universal sign language. However, this is not the case. Sign languages have naturally evolved over time in deaf communities and are independent of the spoken languages that surround them geographically. Like spoken languages, sign languages exhibit variation that arises on the basis of region, social or ethnic group, social situation, age and gender.
Sign languages are the first or preferred language for many Deaf people. They are also the ‘mother tongue’ of many hearing people who grow up with deaf family members and perform a similar range of functions to spoken languages. Due to the lack of reliable figures, it is hard to provide an exact number of how many sign language users there are in Europe. Estimates indicate that around 1 in 1,000 is born with a severe to profound hearing loss. This suggests a population of some 80,000 deaf and 16 million hard of hearing people in the Germany, for example (Deutscher Gehörlosen-Bund e.V. 2015). The total number of sign language users in Germany can be assumed to be much higher.
At European Union level, the European Union of the Deaf estimates that there are some 750,000 Deaf sign language users (Wheatley & Pabsch 2010). On average, Deaf sign language users make up about 0.1% of the whole population in any given country. This does not include people learning a sign language as a second language or children of Deaf parents or other family members. The Swedish linguist, Brita Bergman (Bergman, Britta February 2001. Paper presented at the Official Opening of the European Union/ Council of Europe Year of Languages, Lund, Sweden) has suggested that for every deaf sign language user there are some 10 hearing people who are sign language users; this figure would include children of deaf sign language users, family members, friends, teachers, interpreters, as well as hearing individuals who learn a sign language in order to engage with members of their local Deaf community. This estimate would bring the number of hearing and deaf sign language users in the European Union to 8.5 million.
If we extrapolate these figures to the Council of Europe member states, we can determine that based on an estimated population of 820 million people, we would find approximately 820,000 deaf sign language users and some 8.2 million hearing signers, a total of over 9 million sign language users across the region.
Sign language and Deaf education
Even though many European countries have already recognised their national sign languages, their use as languages of instruction remains to be addressed. As a result, deaf children typically experience very limited access to education where the language of instruction is their local/regional sign language. In some countries, sign language interpreters are provided to deaf children in mainstream educational settings, but this is not unproblematic as it assumes that deaf children will have acquired or learned their local/regional sign language before entering school and this is not always the case. Another factor coming into play is that the European Union of the Deaf estimated in 2010 that the ratio of registered interpreters to Deaf sign language users is at 1 to 62. (Wheatley & Pabsch, 2010)
To ensure access to public services and, crucially, education across the life cycle for future generations of Deaf communities across Europe, an ECML project aims at establishing European standards for specifying proficiency levels for use in Deaf studies and interpreting programmes offered at tertiary level. The PRO-Sign project is the first seeking to develop materials that will also benefit teachers of sign languages, the institutions in which they teach, hearing and deaf students of sign languages as well as the interpreting profession as a whole. For further information, please see the project’s website.
The ECML is convinced that sign languages are of great relevance to the education of both deaf and hearing people including those selecting careers as interpreters and educators. Thus, ECML seeks to strengthen cooperation with associations and experts representing sign language users. Concrete tools for enhanced learning of this target group are currently under development.