Ten reasons to have sign language recognised

07 Nov 2008

The question for governments is not whether to recognise sign language, but when and how to do that. 2008 is the International Year of Languages, UNESCO - United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation - seeks to focus on the protection of minority languages because it has recognised the importance of languages in people's lives.

Adam Kosa

Dr. Ádám Kósa - President of SINOSZ

The chief patron of the sign language conference held on the International Day of the Deaf was
Dr. Máté Szabó, Parliamentary Commissioner for Civil Rights (ombudsman) who said that the Hungarian state has undertaken major international and domestic obligations by signing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The assertion of these rights, however, is the task of persons with disabilities and their advocacy organisations. He said that the Parliamentary Commissioner's Office (OBH) starts inquiries in the framework of the disability project to be launched in 2009 to explore the actual situation of Deaf and Hard of Hearing people in Hungary.

Péter Gresiczki, on behalf of the Hungarian UNESCO Committee said that "sustainability" does not only concern people's environment, economic and social situation, but culture as well. UNESCO signed the Convention on Cultural Diversity in 2005 in pursuance of which the organisation shall support the survival of various languages as the organic part of cultural heritage.
Dr. Csilla Bartha, linguist, the chair of the conference has been researching the linguistic and legal situation of the Hungarian Deaf community and sign language. The presentations of the chair and the other experts provided significantly supported the recognition of sign language and provision of bilingual education in Hungary.

Deaf communities are linguistic minorities

Numerous Hungarian and international researches have confirmed that Deaf communities are linguistic minorities. Dr. Csilla Bartha called attention to the need to recognize sign language using Deaf communities as other linguistic minorities because these languages are just as conventional linguistic systems as sounding and spoken languages, and sign language users are faced with stigmatisation due to their language, norms, cultural habits and values, which are different from those of the majority, as language minorities using spoken languages. The Deaf community uses sign language during communication. This welds them together as an ethnic, linguistic and cultural minority. Community, therefore, is glued together by language (and culture).


Sign languages are natural languages

Harlan Lane, linguist ventured to study sign language in the 70s and came to the conclusion that sign language(s) meet(s) the criteria of natural languages. "All around the world, I try to explore the extremely important linguistic discovery that sign language is also a natural language like English or German, and is equal to them" - he said in an interview. Several foreign and Hungarian linguists and sociologists have adopted this thesis in the past three decades including Francois Grosjean (Switzerland), Dr. Veréna Krausneker (Austria), Dr. Csilla Bartha and Helga Hattyár (Hungary). "Sign language users do not develop sign language again and again, but - similarly to spoken languages - acquire it" - writes Hattyár in a paper.

The fact of bilingualism

Dr. Csilla Bartha creates a definition of bilingualism in her book published in 1999 that also includes sign languages used by Deaf people: "bilingual are the people who use two or more languages regularly during their everyday communication according to their communicative and socio-cultural needs (in speech and/or writing and/or signing)". Deaf people use sign language within their community, however, since they are exposed to the language of the majority (hearing) society - usually learning it in kindergarten and at school - they also use spoken language regularly. Consequently, Deaf people use two languages during their daily communication: Hungarian and Hungarian sign language.

Sign language is the mother tongue of Deaf children

Francois Grosjean, a linguist supports bilingual education in the article published in SINOSZ' paper. (HASÉ, issue 2008/4) In his article, he analyses the roles of sign language and spoken language in the life and development of Deaf children, and states "sign language has to be the first language for children with severe or profound hearing impairment. Sign language is a natural and complete language enabling perfect communication for its users. Sign language - if acquired fast - enables very young Deaf children to have early and full communication with their parents as opposed to spoken languages. It also plays an important role in the cognitive and social development of Deaf children..."

At the Sign Language Conference on 12 September, Dr. Ádám Kósa, President of SINOSZ gave a soul stirring presentation about why sign language is required. "This is the first language for most Deaf people... I use sign language at home, when I talk to my little son, when I'm angry with my wife or when I love her..." But where can sign language be used in everyday life? Although the state supports interpretation services and thereby university and college students can also request a sign language interpreter, the language is not used in elementary or secondary education. There are various and numerous international results and experience available with respect to bilingual education, but it is all missing in Hungary.


Sign language in education

The presentation by Dr. Csilla Bartha aimed at clear up the prejudices against Deaf people (and sign language), emphasising the importance of education in order for Deaf people to successfully be included in society at all levels, especially in the labour market. She cited startling data about the level of education and salary of Deaf people, which fall greatly behind similar data of the majority society. The main reason for exclusion is usually inadequate linguistic competence, that is that Deaf children do not learn to communicate well either in sign language or in the spoken language during their primary education.

Deaf education in Hungary is characterised by the oral method that lays emphasis on hearing education, lip reading and the development of speaking skills. This method works against using sign language, excluding it from Deaf schools as a language of education and as a subject as well.
As I have already cited Grosjean above, Deaf children - due to their particular situation - grow up being bilingual. They can acquire sign language easily even if they see it first at school. (Although from the point of sign language acquisition, early impact, i.e. visual linguistic input is determinant for the development of children.) At the end of her presentation, Bartha stated that the psychology and linguistic research conducted in the past decades, as well as the results achieved in education confirm that it is sign language and spoken language bilingual education that ensures the best linguistic, cognitive and emotional development of children.
"Deaf children have the right to bilingual education" - says Francois Grosjean.

And by this, we have come to our original question of why a sign language act is required.

Sign language from a linguistic and legal aspect

I present a brief summary of the presentation of Dr. Veréna Krausneker on the topic, then I would like to share her opinion of and view on the contributions of other presenters at the conference (and the debate that evolved).

Article 30 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (hereinafter Convention) mentions the role of sign language: "Persons with disabilities shall be entitled, on an equal basis with others, to the recognition and support of their specific cultural and linguistic identity, including sign languages and deaf culture."
Prior to the creation of the Convention, the Council of Europe specified that people are NOT to be judged on the basis of their hearing condition, but on their chosen language. To further this, the Council of Europe drafted a recommendation to the member states in 2003 calling on them to recognise sign language officially!
Official recognition can be implemented in three ways:
1. sign language is recognised at a constitutional level,
2. sign language is recognised through other legal measures (acts),
3. sign language is recognised, but not stipulated in legislation.

In our earlier issues, we have published study papers on the European status of sign language presenting the diverse measures taken in the various countries (e.g. HASÉ 2008/2), therefore, I will not linger on this subject. I would rather quote Dr. Krausneker, who put it plainly why there is a need for a Sign Language Act.


Dr Veréna Krausneker interview excerpts

Dr. Krausneker first wished to respond to the presentation of Péter Horváth (Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour). "I was shocked by the style of the Ministry representative... the arrogant point he held. ... Even if he responded to a media appearance according to which Deaf people are not satisfied with the work of the ministry, one just cannot use such a style with adult people." - said Dr. Krausneker. The other remark concerned the content of the presentation. According to Dr. Krausneker, Deaf people know what they need and know what to request from the Ministry. In turn, it is not the task of the Ministry to question such demands. By listing the services the Ministry provided to Deaf people, the presenter simply said: see, how much we give you and you still want more.

A sign language act is needed, because Deaf people - similarly to other citizens - want a stable point to cling to. They want laws they can rely on. If all this is done, then they can sit back and go after their everyday duties, because they know that law guarantees their rights. Their most important right is their right to sign language, explained dr. Krausneker. People do not want to fight for the budget and resources every year again and again. They have to fight for their fundamental rights every time a new government takes office or there is personnel change in the ministry. This way they have no more energy for anything else, like developing inside the community.

This is exactly why the recognition of sign language is necessary. When sign language is recognised, it is realised „then Deaf people (sign language users) can feel safe, because they know they have the right to use sign language in every field they consider it important" - said the linguist.

On the day following the conference, Dr. Csilla Bartha reflected on the presentation of the Ministry representative as follows: although all of us were revolted by the presentation of Péter Horváth, it was by all means a good occasion to trigger a social debate on the recognition of sign language. The president of SINOSZ demanded the creation of a Sign Language Act in Hungary within one year.

Why do we need a Sign Language Act?

Because I as a Deaf/Hard of Hearing Person

1. have the right to use my first language / mother tongue,
2. have the right to exercise my civil as well as linguistic-cultural rights,
3. have the right to pursue my studies in sign-language, receive bilingual education, as well as having access to quality education and qualified teachers,
4. have the right to establish myself as a member of a minority group and expect society to accept my decision,
5. have the right to determine myself according to my free will,
6. have the right to decide on the use of majority and/or minority language,
7. have the right to equal and, full access to information as well as accessible communication and orientation,
8. have the right to assert/represent myself in sign-language and utilise my right to vote,
9. have the right to access assistive equipment that improves my life provided by public services,
10. have the right to use sign-language in all areas of life.

For more information, please contact: Dalma Földes: foldes.dalma@sinosz.hu