Multilingualism and policy

The Silent Language Community

What languages are spoken in Germany? Apart from German, people think of such immigrant languages as Turkish or Italian as well as regional languages like Sorbish, Danish, or Friesian. But there is yet another language, spoken by around 200,000 people, which doesn’t immediately come to mind: Sign Language.

Users of Sign Language self-assuredly call themselves “speakers” even though they communicate with gestures, mimicry, and lip-reading rather than sounds. The 80,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Germany view themselves as a language community and not as a grouping of the handicapped. They feel that the attribute “deaf-and-dumb” is discriminatory. After all they are not dumb. Firstly, because they can speak in Sign Language, and, secondly, because most of them can also make themselves understood in phonetic language.

The Future Lies Behind Me

Sign Language is not universal. Where people speak a different phonetic language, there is also a different Sign Language. As with phonetic languages, Sign Languages have developed naturally everywhere in the world – independently of one another. Even within the area where German is spoken there are also different sign languages: German, Austrian, and Swiss-German variants – and in Switzerland there are several dialects too. But speakers of a sign language are capable of communicating in the same way as someone from Hamburg without hearing difficulties can talk to a Viennese. In fact Sign Language is more international than phonetic communication. For instance, a deaf German can communicate more easily with a hard-of-hearing Frenchman than anyone with intact hearing who hasn’t learned the other’s language. Even people with good hearing resort to intuitive communication “with hands and feet” if they don’t get anywhere with conventional language. Signs meaning 'No, I'm deaf'. Copyright: Dr. Olaf Fritsche,

Nevertheless the greater the cultural difference is, the more difficult communication through gestures becomes. Even such supposedly universal assumptions as the idea that the past lies behind us and the future is still to come do not apply in some cultures. Prof. Meike Vaupel has described opposing concepts that block universal comprehensibility of gestures as follows: “One can see what is past so this must be in front of us. However one doesn’t know what will happen in the future so the future must lie behind us”.

A Persistent Prejudice

Vaupel, who works at Zwickau University of Applied Sciences teaching interpreters of Sign Languages, would like this means of communication to be taught at schools just like English or French – “because Sign Language is a beautiful, completely different kind of language which operates with the body”. Up to now there’ve been a number of pilot projects “which are much welcomed by children”. However introduction of widespread teaching of Sign Language is impossible because there are far too few qualified teachers. Not even all the staff at schools for the deaf can use Sign Language.

A sign interpreter translating a speech of the politician Gesine Schwan. Photo: Marcus Führer, Copyright: dpa/picture allianceVery few of Germany’s schools for the deaf operate with two languages. Boys and girls mostly only use Sign Language during breaks. Teaching employs phonetic language. Even though previous views about oralism are now thought outdated, the earlier ban on Sign Language in school lessons still exerts an impact. Upholders of oralism advocated purely phonetic education for children with little or no capacity for hearing. In the 19th century teachers of children with hearing difficulties fought over the introduction of Sign Language at schools for the deaf. The “Oralists” prevailed in 1880 and imposed the ban. In addition over 90 % of children with hearing difficulties have parents without any such problems, who for the most part do everything they can to teach their children phonetic language. Such children only make late contact with Sign Language because of fears that early learning of gestural communication could hinder development of phonetic skills. “That is prejudice” – says Vaupel. “By now there is sufficient research refuting that. The contrary is true. Sign Language helps children to develop cognitively”.

The Right to an Interpreter

German Sign Language has been recognized as an autonomous language in the law regulating equality of treatment for the handicapped in 2002. Since then the deaf have a right to professional interpreters, for instance when visiting state officials or in court. In addition interpreters enable the deaf to pursue regular studies, help them in visits to doctors, and in work situations.

Several German universities and polytechnics train interpreters of Sign Languages. Hamburg University made a start in 1993, followed by Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences in 1997 and Zwickau University of Applied Sciences in 2000. Berlin’s Humboldt University has also included a foundation course in its programme since 2003. However even though training opportunities have increased in recent years, the demand for qualified interpreters has not been met, particularly in rural areas. “In theory” – says Meike Vaupel – the need is even considerably greater, “but there’s simply no-one to meet the costs”.

Emotion or Grammar?

A sign with the meaning 'thanks'. Copyright: Dr. Olaf Fritsche, www.visuelles-denken.deThe whole body is involved in Sign Language so for people without hearing difficulties gestural communication sometimes seems highly emotional, but mimicry and body language often have specific grammatical or semantic meanings. The movements and facial expressions of people without speech problems are standardised and more remote from spontaneous expressions of feeling than unaware observers realise. But speakers of such tonal languages as Chinese can also allow their feelings to be heard as part of the grammatically necessary pitches, and someone well-informed can recognise this phenomenon in speakers of Sign Language. Those are the subtleties of this language.

Of course Sign Language is also well-suited to the performing arts and literature – as was shown at the 4th German Cultural Days of the Deaf in August 2008, which presented poetry, theatre, and also Rap.

Christoph Brammertz
Goethe-Institut online editorial office

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
Translation: Timothy Nevill

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September 2008

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