5.4 Country Report: Iceland

by: Valgerður Stefánsdóttir, Samskiptamiðstöð heyrnarlausra og heyrnarskertra, Reykjavik (IS)


The first school for the deaf was founded on September 4th 1867 when  Rev. Páll Pálsson was appointed the teacher of the deaf. He took „mute“ students into his home and taught them using finger-spelling and gestures.

Páll used the Danish manual alphabet because he had been educated in Denmark himself. It can be assumed that at this time Icelandic Sign language started to develop amongst the students.


At the beginning of June 1974, the Nordic Council of the Deaf (Døves Nordiske Råd) held a congress in Iceland. After the Congress funding was started so that communication with the other Nordic, or in fact any other countries, could be increased. It was also decided to hold courses in Sign Language and publish a Sign Language Dictionary.


In 1976 two deaf ladies, Hervör Guðjónsdóttir and Sigurborg Skjaldberg, held a course in Sign Language for the teachers at the Deaf School. They made the teaching material themselves but it was based on the Danish book „Undervisningsblade i Tegnsprog“.

In the eighties, the Deaf School contained a preschool where parents of deaf children received counselling and courses in signed Icelandic. The teachers at these courses were a few deaf students born in 1964 or earlier, all volunteers. At this time the sign Language users were not aware of their language, neither its structure nor grammar and the teaching was therefore based on lists of words in Icelandic and a sign given for each word. The students continued to hold courses, but because of lack of research, many questions concerning the grammar were unanswerable and therefore they felt unsure about their teaching.


In 1978 The Icelandic Association of the Deaf published the first Sign Language Dictionary. It contained about 700 Icelandic signs but also about 6-700 signs that had been borrowed from other Nordic Sign Languages. A reviewed edition was published in 1987 containing 1800 signs, of which many were borrowed from The Danish Sign Language Dictionary, Dansk Tegn Ordbog.  It also contained signs that the Nordic Council had chosen as the common Nordic signs. At this time no research on sign languages was available. Later it came to light that it is not natural to coordinate usage of signs between countries, because sign languages have developed independently in each of the Nordic countries.


In 1986 a Nordic Cultural Festival of the Deaf was held in Iceland and the Deaf Association had to provide Icelandic Sign Language interpreters at the festival. Therefore, during the winter of 1985-86, at the deaf club, these new teachers taught Icelandic Sign Language to a group of ten people, with the aim that seven of them would be ready to interpret at the festival. Four interpreters „graduated“ and interpreted at the festival.

Training of Sign language teachers

During the winter of 1986-87, a course for instructors in Sign Language was held by the Deaf School in cooperation with The Icelandic Association of the Deaf. The course covered 86 hours and all the participants were deaf or hard of hearing. The same winter the Deaf school offered some of their teachers „interpreter training“ covering 100 hours where two deaf instructors and two new “interpreters“ worked together on teaching Icelandic Sign Language and interpreting.

The Communication Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (SHH) was founded 1990.Its function is to research and teach Icelandic sign language, to provide interpreting and other services.

Today the sign language teachers at SHH all hold a teacher's diploma (B.Ed). In 1994, an academic program in Sign Language Linguistics and Interpreting was started at the University of Iceland, in cooperation with SHH. Since that time, the teachers at SHH are required to take additional courses on sign language linguistics and deaf culture at the University of Iceland. At SHH they receive training concerning teaching Icelandic Sign Language.

Curricula, learning materials, CEFR

In the beginning, the sign language teachers at SHH mainly used "Signing Naturally: Student Videotext and Workbook" as a textbook, translated and adapted, but slowly the Icelandic material used today started to develop. This material is now under revision and at the same time being adapted to the CEFR.

Number of sign language teachers

At SHH there are now three sign language teachers. They teach the Center, in high schools, elementary schools and at the Sign Language Linguistics and Interpreting Programme at the University of Iceland.

Sign language research

SHH and The Institute of Linguistics at the University of Iceland together form a Centre for Sign Language Research. The aim of the Centre is to encourage and support further researches in Sign Language, communication in Sign Language, interpreting, language development of Sign Language speaking children and the teaching of Sign Language and interpreting. It also aims at encouraging and supporting cooperation between those that undertake this research to try to ensure the best use of knowledge and funding.

In recent years SignWiki, a web and mobile platform for Sign Languages and Deaf Education, was developed at SHH and launched in January 2012.Here, you can find an Icelandic Sign Language Dictionary, teaching and educational material, scholarly articles, articles and short courses in sign language. The users of this website can contribute material and signs, and change and improve what is already there. When these words are written, about 10.000 signs are to be found on SignWiki, the list is always growing.


Alþingi (parliament). Deaf people were in the parliament house when ITM was recognised. 
Their t-shirts say I love sign language.

Sign language legislation

On June 7th, 2011  legislation was passed by the Icelandic Parliament confirming the Icelandic Sign Language as the first language of those who rely on it for expression and communication, and of their children. The legislation also states that Icelandic Sign Language and Icelandic are equal as means of expression in communication between people and that it is prohibited to discriminate people because of which of the languages they use. The legislation also proclaimed the founding of a Language Committee on Icelandic Sign Language.



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