Language attitudes among deaf people in the Netherlands

Onno Crasborn

Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands


The linguistic situation for sign language in the Netherlands has seen rapid changes in the past decades, and new radical changes are foreseen in the near future. This paper sketches the situation in the Netherlands, and reports on opinions of deaf people on the standardisation that has been taking place since 1998.

After the increasing linguistic recognition of sign language as a natural language in the 1980s, sign language and signing deaf teachers started making their way into the schools, offering adult language models to deaf children of all ages. The deaf community became more visible to the general society, both by the increasing availability and use of sign language interpreters and by the organisation of large events for deaf and hearing people. In the past five years, Internet and communication technologies allowed for the use of videophones, video chat, and sharing video recordings. In 1997, a special report was written for the national government indicating what would be needed for the further emancipation and development of deaf people, including the recommendation to recognise NGT as one of the official languages of the Netherlands.

By 2007, NGT has not yet received any formal status, and the rapid development of a medical technology called ‘cochlear implants’ (CI) is starting to have a major impact. This sophisticated hearing aid is now used with the majority of newborn deaf children around the age of 12 months. Although long-term results are not yet available, it seems that the average child is changed from deaf to hard-of-hearing, allowing for the acquisition of spoken Dutch. Ever fewer parents choose to send their children to deaf schools, and deaf institutes continue their trend to focus on children with a wide variety of communicative and other handicaps.

What do deaf people think of the increasing use of CI and of the concomitant changes in the use of sign language? This paper aims to begin answering this question by looking at the discussions in the Corpus NGT, a video corpus that is currently being developed, containing discussions of around 45 minutes for each of 50 pairs of signers.

This paper reports some initial results on what deaf people think of the standardisation of the lexicon that has been undertaken in recent years, which the government has demanded as a prerequisite for the recognition of sign language. It turns out that many signers have fairly negative opinions on the standardisation project, although from the discussions it becomes clear that not everyone is fully informed about the exact nature of the standardisation procedure.

I propose an explanation of these results involving two main sociolinguistic factors: firstly, the unwritten nature of languages and the absence of a culture of literacy, and secondly, the strong disbalance in the country between native Deaf NGT signers and hearing L2 users of NGT and other forms of signing.

Session: Paper session
Planning/Policy 7 (Minorities)
Friday, April 4, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 14