Sign language is our first language

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Sign language is our first language

By Jill Jones


daveynin under a Creative Commons Licence

Minority languages around the world are in danger– and that includes sign languages.

Only about 1,000 deaf children use British Sign Language (BSL), but there are 42,000 deaf children in Britain. All spoken and sign languages are in danger of disappearing if parents do not pass them on to their children. Joshua Fishman, a linguist, created a scale to measure how much danger languages are in, and how to stop them dying. Only about 5 per cent of parents of deaf children are deaf. So all sign languages are in danger if people do not pass them on to the next generation.

Some countries have legally recognized their sign language(s), but this has not had much effect: legal recognition has not led to practices which facilitate their transmission. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities says that all Member States must recognize and promote their sign languages. But this is not enough if they do not have a good language plan.

The Deaf Ex-Mainstreamers Group (DEX) has developed a language plan for BSL. It measured how much BSL is used, and found that it is in serious danger. At the LAUD 36th International Symposium at the University of Landau in Germany in April 2014, linguists agreed that BSL is in serious danger, and that sign languages should be on the list of endangered spoken languages.

There are other reasons that not so many people will use BSL in the future. One reason is that people see deaf people as disabled, but people who are born deaf are a language community; sign language is our natural language, just as spoken language is natural for hearing people. The DEX language plan helps with these problems.

Some people try to help deaf people ‘hear’ with technical aids eg. digital hearing aids and cochlear implants. But these are only help deaf people to learn spoken language to become part of the hearing society.

It is very important to say that, for some deaf people, sign language is the main, and maybe only, language, because using spoken language is not possible. For deaf people who can hear a little with aids, spoken language is incomplete. We can communicate in different ways, so sign language is a very important part of learning in our lives.

Finally, sign language is our first language and it is the best way communicating fluently with other deaf people, and with hearing people who live and work with us. If you do not allow deaf children to learn BSL, and other sign languages, this breaks their human and linguistic rights.

Jill Jones is Company Secretary for Deaf Ex-Mainstreamers Group Facebook: DEX Perience

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