Myriam Vermeerbergen (BE)

Myriam Vermeerbergen (BE)

Prof. Dr. Myriam Vermeerbergen is a sign linguist and a sign language interpreter trainer at KU Leuven, Faculty of Arts, Antwerp (Belgium). She is the chair of the Flemish Sign Language group and coordinator of the Master in Interpreting program.

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In the early 1990s, Myriam pioneered linguistic research on Flemish Sign Language (VGT) and founded the very first academic Flemish Sign Language course.

She is co-founder and former president of the Vlaams GebarentaalCentrum (Flemish Sign Language Centre), recognised by the government as the centre of expertise for Flemish Sign Language. Between 2008 and 2016, she was also a member of the Advisory Board on Flemish Sign Language. 

What, in your opinion, are the strengths / weaknesses of the current system in your country?

The most significant problem is the lack of a specific training program for Flemish Sign Language teachers. Most of the teachers have had no or very little training. Today the people who in theory are best trained to teach Flemish Sign Language, are those who learned/studied Flemish Sign Language in another training course or program (e.g. sign language interpreter training) and additionally obtained some sort of teacher’s degree, but not one specifically for Flemish Sign Language. I don’t mean to say that those people aren’t good teachers, but their training is not specific enough. Also, most of these people are hearing late-learners of Flemish Sign Language.

Can you give us examples of ‘best practice’, in your country?

This is a difficult one. I am very happy to see that most teachers and most institutions offering Flemish Sign Language teaching realise that Flemish Sign Language teachers need a proper and specific training program. Also, some teachers really put in a lot of effort to try and get as much training and information as possible. I am pleased, and proud, to say that my colleagues at KU Leuven are among these highly motivated professionals.

I also very much like the collaboration between different initiatives, institutions and organisations, e.g. when developing teaching materials and exchanging ideas.

And last but not least, we now have the Corpus Vlaamse Gebarentaal, which can be used both for research and for teaching.

Can you tell us about the accreditation of sign language teachers, in your country?

There is no accreditation of sign language teachers in Flanders.

Can you tell us something about curriculum development in your country? Are curricula based on the CEFR?

The first materials that were developed were aimed at teaching Nederlands met Gebaren (Signed Dutch) and not Flemish Sign Language (VGT). In 1992-1993, whilst working on my PhD, I developed and delivered an elective Flemish Sign Language course at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) (24 hours/year) which was taught by a deaf friend. The materials we created for this course were inspired by my experiences teaching Dutch as a foreign language.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the status of Flemish Sign Language was changing and NmG courses were being transformed into VGT courses. This was very difficult in the beginning, as there were very few materials to teach VGT. Fevlado, the Flemish Deaf Association, took the initiative to develop a first set of materials and asked me to coordinate that task, seeing that I had created materials for our own course at the VUB.

Subsequent teaching materials were often developed as a collaborative effort, involving e.g. the Vlaams GebarentaalCentrum, Fevlado (and Fevlado-Diversus), and the CVO (centre for continuing education) VSPW in Ghent.

With regard to the CEFR, I assume you could say that some aspects of the framework influenced the development of curricula but I wouldn’t say that most curricula are “CEFR-based”.

What, in your opinion, is the way forward, for Sign language teaching & the training of SL teachers in your country, and/or in Europe?

Without any doubt: high-quality training for sign language teachers. And this training should be fully accessible for deaf students.

I would like to see a ‘Flemish Sign Language course’ as an optional subject for everyone in secondary education, or maybe even an introduction to Flemish Sign Language for all primary school kids. I think that would be nice and it might lead to young people wanting to do something more with what they’ve already learned.

Do you have any recommendations that you want to share with us? 

The grammar of Flemish Sign Language still is under-documented and under-described. As such, it is very important that the teaching “keeps up works”, so to speak. What I mean is that whenever new research results on the linguistics of VGT are available, these should immediately be incorporated in Flemish Sign Language teaching (materials). And because of this, it is even more important that there is a close collaboration between researchers, those who provide teacher training, and those who do the actual teaching.

Research should inform teaching but it is also the case that teaching may “feed” research, i.e. questions that come up when teaching the language may be and should be addressed by sign language linguists.

Date of the Interview: May 2017

For a conversation between Myriam Vermeerbergen and her colleague Mieke Van Herreweghe on these and other topics related to Flemish Sign Language teaching, click here.