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Influencing language policies


The "Endangered Sign Languages in Village Communities" project at the International Institute for Sign Languages and Deaf Studies (iSLanDS) at the University of Central Lancashire University was supported by an AHRC grant led by Professor Ulrike Zeshan as part of a larger international European Science Foundation funded consortium. It focused on sign languages in rural communities with a high incidence of hereditary deafness, so-called rural sign languages. Zeshan’s research into this topic brought about engagement with high-level international organisations, which led to an invitation to join a group of international experts on endangered languages, hosted by UNESCO. The group, in existence since 2003, had produced the important Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, however, no sign languages were represented and most members of the expert group were unaware that sign languages were at risk of endangerment. Following Zeshan’s involvement, it was agreed that relevant sign languages should be included in their online database. This activity has since expanded to include urban sign languages, some of which are also reaching endangered status. Through the international committee coordinated by iSLanDS, an increasing number of concerned sign-linguistics and deaf organisations have been in contact to provide data for inclusion in the Atlas.

Researcher Sibaji Panda interacting with some of the deaf signers in Alipur, South India. Credit: iSLanDS, UCLan

It has been important to iSLanDS to publicise the value of these minority sign languages in the countries where members have been engaged in fieldwork. In the village of Alipur in South India, several workshops were organised for the local community, which led to the opening of a school for the deaf, and the broadcast of Alipur signs on the local TV channel. The Unity School for the Deaf provided access to education for 17 deaf children, for the first time in the region. The village is now considering a different model, integrating the deaf children into a larger school by setting up a specialist deaf classroom. The acquisition of literacy by the deaf children has enabled significant benefits in their lives and this has filtered through to deaf adults too, who are now able to use SMS messaging to communicate.

Also as a result of the project, the minority Finland-Swedish Sign Language has been reclassified as critically endangered with dedicated funding allocated by the Finnish government. The Sign Language Act approved by the Finnish Parliament in March 2015 recognised both the majority Finland-Swedish Sign Language (FinSL) as well as the minority Finland-Swedish Sign Langage (FinSSL).

“The big breakthrough is that this Act recognizes both the majority Sign Language (FinSL) and the minority Finland-Swedish Sign Language (FinSSL). When we lobbied for the FinSSL we hugely benefited from the status (severely endangered) given by you [the project] according to the UNESCO criteria. The endangered status of the language is now something many parliament members are very aware of at the moment. Within the state budget of Finland there is a funding allocation for starting revitalisation activities in 2015 for FinSSL”.

Quote from Karen Hoyer, Special Advisor for the Finnish Association of the Deaf, in response to the minority Finland-Swedish Sign Language receiving dedicated funding from the Finnish government under a new ‘Sign Language Act’.

This case study was featured within the AHRC 2014/15 impact report (PDF, 7.7MB)

For more information on the project visit: Project Webpage

Gateway to Research Project Link: Endangered sign languages in village communities (Sep 09 - Mar 13)