[lg policy] EU Languages and Language policy: Europe: a continent of many sign languages

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Aug 19 14:37:48 UTC 2010

EU Languages and Language policy
Europe: a continent of many sign languages

Sign languages are an important part of Europe’s multilingual
diversity. Based on manual-gestural codes rather than sound, they are
as rich as spoken languages in grammatical structures, syntaxes and
lexicons. Broadly speaking, each spoken language has a counterpart
sign language.

Number of sign language users

Detailed statistics about the number of sign language users in the
European Union are not available, but the Eurobarometer survey carried
out in 2001 found that 0.2 percent of respondents knew a sign
language. Extrapolated across the EU, this would mean there are around
900,000 sign language users, though these figures should be treated
with some caution due to the small size of the sample. Other estimates
suggest that one person in a thousand uses a national sign language as
a first language, equivalent to around half a million people in the
EU. As well as deaf people, for whom a sign language may be their
mother tongue, sign language speakers include the hearing impaired,
their friends and family, and others who use sign language as a second
or third language.
Different legal statuses
The official status of sign languages varies across the EU. Three
countries recognise their national sign language on a constitutional

    * Austria (recognition achieved in 2005)
    * Finland (recognition achieved in 1995)
    * Portugal (recognition achieved in 1997)

Other Member States have used other measures and laws to give sign
language official status: the French speaking community in Belgium,
Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden
and the United Kingdom.

These measures have the backing of the European Parliament, which
adopted a Resolution on sign languages in 1988 (reiterated in 1998).
This called on the European Commission and Member States to promote
sign language and to ensure deaf people can work and learn in their
preferred language. From 1996 to 1997, the Commission supported the
Sign Languages Project, a large-scale project to promote the
recognition of sign languages, co-ordinated by the European Union of
the Deaf (EUD), the European federation representing national deaf


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