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Ground-breaking work on sign languages and the CEFR

07 May 2018

Just six years ago there were no references to sign languages in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).With support from the European Centre for Modern Languages of the Council of Europe (ECML), today we celebrate the existence of the ground-breaking “Sign Languages and the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. Common Reference Level Descriptors” (2016), a result of the ECML ProSign1 project.  One of the strengths of the ProSign descriptors is that they are not language specific, because they focus on communication rather than linguistic competencies. They have been developed to support sign language teachers, sign language learners, academics, policy makers, and others who are concerned with quality sign language learning, teaching and assessment.

 Over a period of 4 years, with significant engagement from sign language teachers and linguists from across the Council of Europe member countries, the ProSign 1 team led the adaptation of CEFR descriptors for the visual-gestural modality through which signed languages are expressed. The team built on work that had already been carried out in a range of European countries (France, Germany, Netherlands, Ireland and Switzerland) that considered how existing CEFR descriptors related to the teaching and learning of national sign languages. The resulting documentation was published in 2016 by the ECML in both International Sign and in English; demand to translate the descriptors quickly followed and these are now also available in Czech, Estonian, German, Icelandic and Slovenian, with other languages such as Dutch, already in the pipeline. These descriptors have been widely adopted by European Deaf communities, and dissemination has been widespread via, for example, our partner organisations, the European Union of the Deaf, the European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters, and via the European Network for Sign Language Teachers. Discussion of the ProSign work has led to engagement with colleagues further afield too – including Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand. We are delighted to see that teams of sign language teachers around Europe continue with this work in and for their national sign languages, and we warmly welcome reference to sign language descriptors in the newly released CEFR Companion Volume (2018).

The ECML’s support for sign languages has been transformative. Six years ago there was scant reference to sign languages in European or national documentation on language learning, teaching, and assessment. Today, the landscape has changed. Sign languages are part of the official pan-European conversation on language learning, teaching and assessment and we look forward to continued engagement for many years to come.

Current ECML project: Promoting excellence in sign language instruction

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