2. BEFORE THE PANDEMIC: CHALLENGES FOR SIGN LANGUAGE TEACHERS
Summary of Chapter 2
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, sign language teachers faced unique challenges that differ from teachers of spoken languages:
- Sign language teaching has a relatively short history, with sign languages being repressed until the 1960s. As a result, most sign language teachers are Deaf individuals who acquired signing informally during childhood or later in life. The majority of these teachers lack formal training in sign language.
- There are very few formal teacher training programs specifically for sign language instruction. If any training opportunities exist, they tend to be informal. As a result, most sign language teachers rely on their personal intuition, practical experience, and their knowledge of sign language and linguistic concepts.
- Many sign language teachers developed their own curricula and learning materials. There is very little research that compares the effectiveness of these curricula. Teachers often have to ‘invent their own wheels’.
- There are few standardised tests for signed languages. This makes it difficult to compare the results of the different sign language curricula and teaching methods that sign language teachers use.
- Sign language teachers often struggle with access to mainstream literature and research on teaching methods and curriculum development. Additionally, many instructors work in isolation, with limited interaction or collaboration with their peers.
When sign language teachers had to start teaching online in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, they encountered even more challenges. Some of these are the same as those of teachers of spoken languages. But there are also unique challenges specific to teaching signed languages. We used interviews and an online survey to find out how sign language teachers across Europe dealt with these challenges.
2. Before the Pandemic: Challenges for Sign Language Teachers
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, sign language teachers faced more challenges than teachers of first or foreign spoken languages. For an overview, see one of the outputs of the first SignTeach project: Sign Language Teaching in Europe, Report and Recommendations (L. Pyfers, 2017). Below, a summary and some quotes from the - very limited - research literature in this field.
2.1 Sign Language Teachers
Sign language teaching has a relatively short history, with sign languages being repressed until the 1960s. Consequently, most sign language teachers are deaf individuals who acquired signing informally during their childhood or at a later stage. Regrettably, the majority of these teachers lack formal training in sign language.
"Very little research has examined the L1 and L2/Ln pedagogy of sign languages. Historically and in common with minority languages, pedagogical practices and materials in sign languages in most of the world were based on practical experiences, informal mentoring, and the influence of available materials, rather than from a body of research and formal training in language pedagogy practices." Rosen, 2019
2.2 Teaching Methods and Curricula
The emergence of sign language courses occurred predominantly in the 1980s, organised by local Deaf associations and overseen by individuals lacking pedagogical training. These courses primarily consisted of sign lists, often following the structure of spoken languages. Hearing teachers frequently resorted to simultaneous speaking and signing, while the teaching of different sign systems lacked clarity and consistency. The absence of standardised curricula and the scarcity of empirical studies based on second language acquisition (SLA) models further contributed to the challenges faced by sign language teachers.
"Yet, there are few empirical studies on sign language pedagogy following models and theories of second language acquisition (SLA), and no study has compared the efficacy of different curricula (Thoryk, 2010). Frequently, signed language instructors design teaching methods based on their own experience as a language user and member of the community. This is, in part, due to lack of any formal training in teaching language since the vast majority of instructors have not completed academic preparation in language instruction." (In: Mann, Haug a.o., 2015)
2.3 Teacher Training Programs
In most European countries, there are limited or no formal teacher training programs specifically designed for sign language instruction. If any training opportunities exist, they tend to be informal and focus solely on teaching the sign language curriculum. Consequently, sign language teachers primarily rely on intuition, practical experience, available learning materials, and their familiarity with the language and linguistic concepts.
2.4 Lack of Resources and Isolation
Mainstream literature and research related to teaching methods and curriculum development are often inaccessible to sign language teachers. Moreover, many sign language instructors work in isolation, with limited interaction or collaboration with their peers. The scarcity of published resources further exacerbates the challenges faced by these educators.
2.5 Assessment and Standardised Tests
The absence of standardised sign language tests poses a significant challenge for assessing learners' proficiency. While a few non-standard assessments are available within institutions, most lack standardisation and wider accessibility. The Sign Language Proficiency Interview (SLPI) represents one of the rare standardised assessments, primarily developed for American Sign Language (ASL) proficiency evaluation. Adaptations of the SLPI for European sign languages and alignment with the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) have been attempted, albeit with limited success.
"A small number of non-standard signed language tests are available, for instance, to assess students at the end of a signed language class in college or university. Most of these tests are not standardized and are not available outside of an institution." (In: Mann, Haug a.o., 2015)
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, sign language teachers already encountered numerous challenges when teaching traditionally, stemming from the lack of formal training programs, limited resources, and insufficient research in the field. The absence of standardised curricula, teaching methods, and assessment tools hinders the development and improvement of sign language education. Addressing these challenges will require the establishment of comprehensive training programs, increased research efforts, and the creation of evidence-based curricula and teaching methods. Only through these endeavours can sign language education be effectively enhanced, ensuring a high standard of instruction and fostering the development of sign language learners.
When sign language teachers had to start teaching online in 2020 because of the Covid-pandemic, they faced the same challenges that teachers of spoken languages had to deal with, but also a number of challenges that are unique for the teaching of signed languages.