Today – 21 February 2012 – is the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) International Mother Language Day. The day was established in February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity, as well as multilingualism to combat the extinction of languages and foster mother tongue education.
Sign languages form the mother tongues of Deaf people all across the world. EUD believes that the right to sign language is a basic Human Right. Access to sign language is essential for the fulfilment of other human rights, such as the right to equal education, information, or a fair trial. Without early access to sign language programmes and an educational system that fosters the acquisition of sign language (and the national written language) Deaf children will not be able to enjoy their basic human rights as children or later in their adult life.
Although in general fostering inclusive education, the Salamanca Statement on and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education in its article 21 states:
“Educational policies should take full account of individual differences and situations. The importance of sign language as the medium of communication among the deaf, for example, should be recognised and provision made to ensure that all deaf persons have access to education in their national sign language. Owing to the particular communication needs of deaf and deaf-blind persons, their education may be more suitably provided in special schools or special classes and units in mainstream schools.”
A large number of languages (including indigenous sign languages) are in danger of dying out. This is a very immediate threat being discussed at the regular UNESCO expert meetings on language endangerment, which also assesses the situation of sign languages in the world. WFD, the World Federation of the Deaf, along with EUD, organised a conference on the topic of sign languages as endangered languages in November 2011, discussing the various reasons for the extinction of sign languages across the world.
Sign languages in many communities across the EU and the world are in danger of becoming extinct if policies do not reflect the basic human right Deaf people have to a mother tongue, namely a national sign language. Inclusive education that does not foster sign languages and policies that do not allow children to learn a sign language are a threat to the cultural richness of the Deaf Community.
The UNESCO Position Paper from 2003 includes sign languages and Braille, stating that they are in a minority position in every country. It advocates the teaching of the mother tongue and the teaching through the mother tongue. EUD would like to point out that sign languages are complex languages with their own grammar and lexicon and should not be confused with communication systems, such as Braille, which make spoken/written language visible to certain groups.
The Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights, which is based on the principle that the rights of all language communities are equal and independent of the legal or political status of their languages, proclaims in article 4 that assimilation ‘in in such a way that the original cultural characteristics are replaced by the references, values and forms of behaviour of the host society, must on no account be forced or induced and can only be the result of an entirely free choice’. For Deaf people this means a spoken language should not be forced upon them. Learning the written form of the national spoken language on the other hand is essential and must be taught through the medium of the national sign language.
On the International Mother Language Day, EUD urges policymakers across Europe to ensure the adequate protection of sign languages at European, national, and regional level, giving Deaf children the right to education in the only language accessible to them.
Definition: Mother Tongue (on the basis of Skutnabb-Kangas 2000)
Four possible criteria:
(1) Origin: the language one learned first,
(2) Identification (internal and external): the language one identifies with or is identified by others as a native speaker,
(3) Competence: the language one knows best; and
(4) Function: the language one uses most.
A mother tongue/language can fulfil one or more (or all) criteria. For most Deaf people this would be a national sign language.
For more information please contact EUD Policy Officer, Annika Pabsch:
Tel: +32 2 280 22 59
The PDF version of the paper can be found here.
Official Website of the International Day
WFD/EUD Press Release “Bilingualism as a basic human right for deaf children in education”
UNESCO Education Position Paper 2003
Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights 1996
Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education
World Federation of the Deaf
Jokinen, M. (2000): The Linguistic Human Rights of Sign Language Users. In: R Phillipson (Ed.) Rights to Language: Equity, Power and Education. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp.203-213.
Marschark, M. & Spencer, P.E. (2009). Evidence of Best Practice Models and Outcomes in the Education of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children: An International Review. Rochester, NY: National Technical Institute for the Deaf – Rochester Institute of Technology.
Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2010). Language Rights. In: J Jaspers, J-O Östman & J Verschueren (Eds.) Society and Language Use. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, pp.212-232.
Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000). Linguistic Genocide in Education – or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights? Mahwah, New Jersey: Erlbaum Associates.
Skutnabb-Kangas, T. & Phillipson, R. (1995). Linguistic Human Rights: Overcoming Linguistic Discrimination. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. Follow Up Committee (1998). Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights. Barcelona: Institut d’Edicions de la Diputació de Barcelona.
Varennes de, F. (1996). Language, Minorities and Human Rights. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.
Wheatley, M. & Pabsch, A. (2010). Sign Language Legislation in the European Union. Brussels: EUD.