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Deaf community ownership of endangered sign language revitalisation

Language and Nature
Wednesday 9 November 2022, 13:00
Clothworkers North G12 (and zoom)

Deaf community ownership of endangered sign language revitalisation

Jill Jones, obo Deaf Experience Ltd (DEX) – formerly Deaf Ex-Mainstreamers Ltd.


Sign languages are well researched visuospacial languages highly suited to deaf people for meaning and symbolic value: deaf people are in their natural element when they sign, just as hearing people are when they speak. Despite a plethora of research within the multiple academic fields of linguistics there had been no recognition that the continuity of sign languages’ cultures and heritage is endangered as replacement levels fall because sign languages are not mother tongue languages: throughout the world almost all deaf children are born to hearing parents who do not sign.

Technological advances to aid residual hearing have raised expectations that deaf children hear more than they actually do without acknowledging that a great deal of information is missed. Deaf children are likely to have reduced spoken language lexicography, challenges acquiring phonological skills and struggle with the speech forms of spoken language, finding it difficult to remember spoken information and experiencing challenges with working memory (Schein 1996; Bess et al. 1998; Bess & Tharpe, 1986, 1988; Blair et al. 1985; Bovo et al. 1988; Brookhouser et al. 1991; Culbetson & Gilbert 1986; Davis et al. 2001, 1986; Klee & Davis-Dansky 1986; Lieu 2004; Moeller 2000; Oyler et al. 1987; Yoshinaga-Itano et al. 1998; Richardson et al. 2010; Mason 1997; Shirin et al. 2011; Most et al. 2011; Vostanis et al. 1997, amongst many other research studies). Only approximately 9% of 51,600 deaf children in the UK are learning British Sign Language (BSL) with English or Welsh spoken languages (Consortium of Research Into Deaf Education – CRIDE, 2021). Of the 9% of deaf child BSL users 7% use a mixture of sign and spoken languages together and so does not constitute a pure sign language.

This new study builds on the published work undertaken on behalf of the Deaf Ex-Mainstreamers (DEX) charity, the findings of which were that BSL is severely endangered. This was measured by using Fishman’s Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (GIDS), UNESCO’S Language Vitality and Endangerment (LVE, 2003) and Lewis and Simon’s Expanded GIDS (EGIDS). In addition, the previous study in BSL’s language endangerment analysed the enactment of sign language legislation throughout the world, finding that replacement levels do not rise despite attempts to raise status and promote them.

DEX’s recommendations are that BSL is treated in order to reverse language shift. To do this immediate intervention is crucial to ensure that all parents of deaf children are universally provided with rich information about the manifold benefits of their child learning BSL and English bilingualism. This is modelled on the successful Welsh language revival plan for new parents in Wales to access to Welsh-medium education.

From 2014 a cross party group of Members of Parliament requested leadership from DEX to draft a BSL Bill with other deaf organisations. DEX led with protracted calls to grant BSL the status of a language in danger. The consequence of this was the passing of the BSL Act 2022. BSL is a legally recognised language in the United Kingdom (UK). However, no provisions were made in the BSL Act for the protection of BSL.

To address this sorely missed opportunity this new study will look at the discourse that speakers (and in this case, signers too) should be the authors of language transmission despite the findings that speakers do not show much, if any, interest in the revitalisation of their languages. It will consider any reasons with regards to minority language communities’ attitudes towards reversing language shift and the concept of defensive culture. Institutional barriers in the UK have negatively impacted on activities / initiatives aimed at reversing language shift. This is (in part) due to the division imposed by the educational system within the deaf community, between deaf schools’ alumni who claim community ownership of BSL and Deaf Identity, and BSL users who attended mainstream schools.

The study aims to demonstrate that in order to establish an alternative form of transmission of BSL to compensate for the absence of mother tongue transmission, it is imperative to establish a deaf research community-led initiative, which promotes knowledge of BSL revitalisation among both deaf people and the state. This would ensure the wellbeing of future generations of deaf children and the survival of the deaf community and its language.



Jill Jones is congenitally deaf, qualified to Master of Arts degree level in Management, undertook an uncompleted BSL Studies Master degree course at the University of Durham; she was the only deaf person in a small group to pass the first accreditation

in BSL. She has 57 years of experience of social work and management with deaf people, BSL curriculum development and teaching, research, editing and authorship of books, papers and reports, advocacy and voluntary experience in the deaf community and involvement in the disability community.