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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Language Policy and Planning for Sign Languages

Timothy G. Reagan

Excerpt from Chapter One
Sign Language and the deafworld as a Special Case: An Overview

The traditional way of writing about Deaf people is to focus on the fact of their condition—that they do not hear—and to interpret all other aspects of their lives as consequences of this fact . . . In contrast to the long history of writings that treat them as medical cases, or as people with “disabilities” who “compensate” for their deafness by using sign language, we want to portray the lives they live, their art and performances, their everyday talk, their shared myths, and the lessons they teach one another. We have always felt that the attention given to the physical condition of not hearing has obscured far more interesting facets of Deaf people’s lives. (Padden & Humphries, 1988, p. 1)

Lately . . . the deaf community has begun to speak for itself. To the surprise and bewilderment of outsiders, its message is utterly contrary to the wisdom of centuries: Deaf people, far from groaning under a heavy yoke, are not handicapped at all. Deafness is not a disability. Instead, many deaf people now proclaim, they are a subculture like any other. They are simply a linguistic minority (speaking American Sign Language) and are no more in need of a cure than are Haitians or Hispanics. (Dolnick, 1993, p. 37)

For those interested in language planning and language policy, deaf people, as a cultural and linguistic community, are an especially fascinating case study.1 Both the deafworld and sign language exist only in the plural; that is, although deaf people in different countries and settings certainly share certain experiences, attitudes, values, and concerns, they are also quite distinct in nature. In addition, and making the situation even more complex, whereas language planning and language policy studies for sign languages are similar to such activities for spoken languages, they are not identical. Thus, language planning and language policy studies for sign languages essentially creates something of a parallel universe to that with which language planners and policy makers are normally most familiar. And yet, at the same time, this universe in which deaf culture and natural sign languages exist is not completely independent of the universe in which we live and operate. It overlaps the world of the hearing and spoken languages, in important ways. Furthermore, because deaf people inevitably live in the hearing world as well as in the deafworld, the decisions that we make with respect to language planning and language policy for both spoken and sign languages have immense impacts on them.

This book, as mentioned in the preface, addresses two very different audiences. The first are those readers who are familiar and concerned with the literature on language planning and language policy studies but not particularly familiar with either the deafworld or sign language and wish to learn about the case of sign language and deaf people with respect to issues of language planning and language policy more broadly conceived. The second audience for this book are those readers who are either members of or those close to the deafworld and sign language but unfamiliar with matters of language planning and language policy studies. Thus, the first two chapters of this book will attempt to provide introductions for each of these groups: Chapter 1 provides a general overview of the nature of sign language and the deafworld, whereas Chapter 2 provides a broad overview of the language planning and language policy literature as it has developed for spoken languages.

Although this chapter is not focused explicitly on language planning and language policy, such issues are addressed implicitly here in two ways. First, in order to understand issues related to language planning and language policy for sign languages, both in the U.S. and around the world, it is essential to have a foundational understanding of the nature of sign language and the deafworld, and in this chapter I will provide that foundation. Second, although many of the aspects of language planning and language policy for sign languages do reflect and overlap those for spoken languages, there are some important differences between spoken and sign languages in terms of language planning and language policy, and this chapter will address some of these.


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