Frankie Picron and David Hay (EUD, www.eud.eu) summarized chapters of this report in International Sign.
The sign languages of the EU are recognised as fully fledged indigenous languages of the European Union (Leeson, 2006) and are an important part of Europe's multilingual diversity.
It is estimated that there are approximately 750.000 deaf sign language users in the EU (Sign Language Legislation in the European Union, 2012); the total number of sign language users (including hearing people) is several times larger.
In order to ensure that deaf people are able to work and learn in their preferred language, the European Commission, in concert with the European Parliament, has taken steps to promote sign language and to give sign language an official status.
Recently, November 2016, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Sign Languages and professional Sign Language Interpreters (2016/2952(RSP). It includes (item 24) a call on the Member States "to encourage the learning of sign language in the same way as foreign languages."
For deaf sign language users to be able to work and learn in their preferred language - a sign language - professional sign language teachers are needed to teach sign language to parents of deaf children (most parents of deaf children are hearing, with no previous knowledge of sign language), other family members, friends, teachers, colleagues, as well as for the training of professional sign language interpreters.
The SignTeach project
In 2014, 11 organisations from 8 European countries joined forces to develop an Open Educational Resource for sign language teachers: the SignTeach website (www.signteach.eu). The project was funded under the Erasmus+ Programme (KA2 2014-1-NL01-KA200-001279).
One of the objectives of the SignTeach project was to find out more about sign language teachers and sign language teaching in Europe. At the start of the project there was little or no collaboration between sign language teachers across borders, or even nationally. It was—and still is—unknown how many sign language teachers there are in each country, who they are, how they are trained, and how and where they work. What are their wishes? What are the barriers that they have to deal with? What are good practices that they want to share with their colleagues?
The SignTeach Survey
The SignTeach Survey - an online survey published in written English and International Sign - tried to find answers to these questions.
What we found was not encouraging. Many sign language teachers have had little or no formal or even informal training for teaching a sign language. Teachers report that they develop 50% or more of the materials that they use, themselves. In some countries, sign language teaching is considered more like a hobby or voluntary work, rather than as a profession and a viable career option. Many sign language teachers work on their own, without or with only occasional contacts with other sign language teachers.
In this report, you can find some of
the results of the Survey and the interviews that we had with experts. On the SignTeach website, you will find more information as well as videos of sign language teachers at work (www.signteach.eu).
Since the start of the SignTeach project in 2014, there have been some promising developments, for instance, the international Lesico conferences for sign language teachers and the recently established European Network of Sign Language Teachers (www.enslt.eu).
At the same time, we see major threats. Although we do not have hard data to support this, most experts who we consulted agree that fewer and fewer people learn sign language as a first language. Without native signers, sign languages are at risk of soon being taught as ’dead’ or extinct languages, like Latin.
And in the longer term, of not being used and taught at all?
In the next chapter, you will find some background information about sign languages, and what YOU can do to support sign languages and sign language users. In later chapters, you will find results of the SignTeach Survey and the interviews that we had with experts in the countries of the SignTeach partners.
Although the Survey was completed by over 240 sign language teachers from across Europe, unfortunately, we did not have sufficient data for sophisticated statistical analyses, for instance, to compare countries or subgroups.
For this report, we focused on the countries of the SignTeach partners. In alphabetical order: Belgium (BE), the Czech Republic (CZ), Germany (DE), Iceland (IS), Italy (IT), the Netherlands (NL), Norway (NO) and the United Kingdom (UK).
We compared the data of these 8 countries with the average data of all countries. We interviewed experts in these countries and asked them for their viewpoints and recommendations.
In this introduction, we can already tell you the main conclusion of the SignTeach project and the SignTeach Survey: much, much more needs to be done - at local, regional, national and European level - to support sign languages and sign language teaching.
Conclusions & Recommendations
In a way, this report ends with a ‘cliff hanger’: What is going to happen, next? This, we cannot tell you. In the final chapter, Chapter 6, we WILL tell you what we WANT to happen: our conclusions and recommendations.