Sign languages are real languages

COVID-19 has put sign language in the public eye, and New Zealand is often regarded as a shining example of strong status recognition, but there is much scope for improvement.

This week is New Zealand Sign Language Week, to coincide with the International Week of the Deaf and the United Nations International Day of Sign Languages on September 23.

Deaf communities the world over have had to fight for recognition sign languages are ‘real’ languages and formalised rights to use sign language are necessary to ensuring their participation in society.

New Zealand is notable for recognising its national sign language in the New Zealand Sign Language Act 2006, which, uniquely in the world, granted official language status.

This year, COVID-19 put New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) in the public eye due to the need to make information accessible to the whole population, through NZSL interpreters at government briefings.

Interpreters signing on television alongside Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, along with other ministers and officials, provoked mixed reactions from the public, but for the Deaf community their presence was a welcome signal the state acknowledges their right to access information at the same time as other citizens.

Recognition of a language validates the cultural identity of its users and in the case of Deaf citizens, can practically increase their inclusion in everyday communication others take for granted.

What does it take for Deaf communities to achieve language recognition and what difference does legislation make? To bring light to these questions, Associate Professor Rachel McKee, Programme Director of New Zealand Sign Language Studies at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, and a member of its Deaf Studies Research Unit, has co-edited a book, The Legal Recognition of Sign Languages: Advocacy and Outcomes, which documents 18 national case studies of sign language recognition campaigns in Europe, the United States, South America, Asia and New Zealand.

In a review, language scholar Tove Skutnabb-Kangas observes that “so far there is not a single state where the possibilities for Deaf people to fully participate in their societies would be on a par with hearing people. This book tells about the struggles to get there”.

Universal aims for recognition are threefold: status recognition (that sign language is a recognised language of a national minority); instrumental rights (measures to access public services and civic life through sign language, often via interpreting and translation); and linguistic rights in education (to enable Deaf children to access education in sign language).

Campaigns by Deaf communities in several countries have leveraged parallels with laws protecting minority or indigenous languages (for example, the New Zealand Sign Language Act mirrors parts of the 1987 Māori Language Act). Disability access laws have also been an avenue to secure sign language rights in countries such as France and Korea.

According to McKee, New Zealand is often regarded as a shining example of strong status recognition due to NZSL’s designation as an ‘official language’, but comparison of the provisions of our law with those of other countries (and obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities) suggests much scope to improve instrumental rights for NZSL users.

Among these, a key aspiration of Deaf communities is the right of Deaf children to receive education through sign language, which legally exists in countries such as Finland and Brazil, but not in New Zealand or many others.

The Government’s establishment of an NZSL advisory board in 2014 and budget commitments since 2015 have boosted the kind of activities needed to empower NZSL users, such as language teaching, research, interpreter access and strategic planning of language promotion and maintenance.

By now, it is better understood that sign languages are languages, but more work is needed to effectively recognise those languages in ways that empower their speakers.

McKee says the takeaway message of her book is that achieving legal recognition is not an end point but rather just a beginning in changing the status of a language and a community.

Increase your skills with the New Zealand Sign Language Dictionary developed by the Deaf Studies Research Unit at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

Read the original article on Newsroom.