Fingerspelling, and Contact in Signed Languages
Background Information on Flanders and Signed Language in Flanders
Flanders is the northern part of Belgium, a small triangular country in Western Europe with its capital, Brussels (which is also the capital of Flanders), situated in the middle of the country. In 1993, Belgium became a federalized monarchy with basically two states (Flanders in the north with about 5,500,000 inhabitants and Wallonia in the south with about 4,500,000 inhabitants) and two official languages: Dutch in Flanders and French in Wallonia. Actually, the situation is more complex because, in addition, the eastern part of Belgium includes a small German-speaking area, and German is the third official language (with about 60,000 speakers), but going into all these political aspects is not necessary. Worth mentioning, though, is that many immigrant workers speaking their various first languages (Turkish, Arabic, etc.) reside in Belgium and that, of course, various signed languages that are not officially recognized are also used.
The Flemish Deaf community is estimated to include approximately 5,000 signed language users. The education of deaf children in Belgium and its neighboring countries was and has continued to be strongly influenced by the resolutions accepted at the Milan Conference in 1880. Deaf children were educated orally, and signs were banned. By the beginning of the twentieth century, every major town in Flanders had a Deaf school, and some towns even had two: one for boys and one for girls. Most of the schools were residential schools because of the distances and the way the schools were organized. Pupils went home only during the holidays and, later on, also during the weekends. As a result, regional sign language variants started to develop around every school, so now we are faced with five variants in a state as small as Flanders. In addition, certain differences have evolved in the signs of Deaf men and of Deaf women, although the differences are diminishing rapidly because all the schools have been open to boys and girls for decades. At the moment, Flanders has no standardized sign language, although an ongoing process of spontaneous standardization is occurring primarily because Deaf people from different regions are having more and more contact.
Today, most deaf children are still educated orally, although signs are no longer banned and interest in bilingual-bicultural education is growing rapidly. Consequently, all the adults in Flanders, including deaf and Deaf adults, were educated orally, either in a special education setting or in a mainstream setting (although a small minority of young adults in this group were educated in Total Communication programs using what is called “Nederlands met Gebaren,” or “Signed Dutch”).
Another important influence on sign language in Flanders is the federalization process that has taken place in Belgium during the last two or three decades. Today, every Belgian, including those who are deaf, belongs to a certain linguistic group. Ironically, Deaf Belgians are also considered Flemish or Walloon; that is, they are regarded as belonging to one of the two linguistic majority groups that speak either Dutch or French, regardless of the signed language they may use or the linguistic minority group to which they might belong. These classifications have major consequences in daily life that range from the choice of the school to which Deaf children are sent (especially in Brussels, which is supposed to be bilingual—Dutch and French—and which has Flemish schools and Walloon schools, etc.) to determinations of whether these children are entitled to a free hearing aid or whether and for how many hours they can get a sign language interpreter. The federalization was a fact in 1993, but this current situation was, of course, the result of a long process. The national Deaf federation, NAVEKADOS, had already split into a Flemish and a Walloon federation in the seventies: Fevlado (Federatie van Vlaamse Dovenorganisaties, or the Association of Flemish Deaf Organizations) was founded in 1977. As a result, cultural activities have been organized separately since the seventies, and the Flemish and the Walloon Deaf clubs have been subsidized from different sources. Contacts between Flemish and Walloon Deaf people have become less and less frequent, and this separation has, of course, had its effect on the development of the signed languages in both communities, which seem to be deviating from each other as they are going through separate standardization processes.
2. The Dutch that is spoken in Flanders is the same language as the Dutch that is spoken in the Netherlands with minor differences (mostly pronunciation differences and, to some extent, lexical and minor grammatical differences). Actually, the two uses can easily be compared to the English that is spoken in the States and the English that is spoken in Britain.
3. The Deaf clubs are among the oldest societies in Belgium, and every major town in Flanders has a Deaf club, but many smaller towns also have one, so in total, Flanders has about 25–30 Deaf clubs. Several of them have already celebrated their one hundredth anniversary, for example, the club in Ghent (founded in 1860), the one in Sint-Niklaas (1896), and the one in Aalst (1898). The Belgian Deaf clubs (the Flemish and the Walloon clubs) decided to form a national federation in 1936 and founded NAVEKADOS (the “National Federation of Catholic Deaf-Mutes”).