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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Turn-Taking, Fingerspelling, and Contact in Signed Languages

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In short, up until about fifteen years ago, people were usually signing, talking, and writing about Belgian Sign Language. Now, many Deaf people feel intuitively that the signed language used in Flanders is very different from the one used in the Netherlands (even though the two hearing communities speak the same language, Dutch) but that it is closer to the signed language used in Wallonia (although the Walloon hearing community speaks French). Right now, not enough linguistic evidence has been collected to know whether the differences between Flanders and Wallonia are big enough to allow talk about two different signed languages. Hence, as a good Belgian compromise, the term Flemish Belgian Sign Language was used in recent years for the signed language variants used in Flanders. However, because of the split of the national Deaf federation into two regional federations, the fewer and fewer contacts among both organizations and their members, and the separate standardization processes, most Deaf people in Flanders prefer to talk about Flemish Sign Language. This term is also the term that was adopted by Fevlado at its last annual general meeting (AGM) in October 2000. At that AGM, the participants were asked to vote for either the term Flemish Sign Language or the term Flemish Belgian Sign Language. The first option was nearly unanimously elected. Even though this choice is obviously more politically than linguistically motivated, I want to respect the opinion of the Flemish Deaf Association and its members and will talk about Flemish Sign Language from now on (although, at this point, it is not quite clear whether Deaf people growing up and living in Brussels are very happy with this development and what Deaf people in Wallonia think of this development).[4] Consequently, in the remainder of this chapter, I will use the term Flemish Sign Language.


In May and June 2000, I videotaped the following types of meetings:

  • A meeting with parents of deaf children and some professionals at the school of their children, with four Deaf parents, four hearing parents, one hearing chairperson (an educational psychologist), one partially hearing cochairperson (a psychologist), two interpreters, and several hearing professionals (who worked with the children and who only observed the meeting but did not really participate)—This mix of participants was esteemed to be ideal for equal participation. Both chairpersons were well acquainted with Deaf culture (the hearing chairperson actually also has a degree in sign language interpretation), and there were two interpreters, one interpreting from Dutch into Flemish Sign Language (henceforth called the voice-to-sign interpreter) and one interpreting from Flemish Sign Language into Dutch (henceforth called the sign-to-voice interpreter).

  • A staff meeting of the teachers in a sign language interpreter training program, with three Deaf teachers, six hearing teachers, one hearing chairperson, and one interpreter—This mix of participants was esteemed to be less ideal, but still good. There was one interpreter, and although the chairperson was not well acquainted with Deaf culture, the other participants in the meeting were.

  • A meeting of the board of Fevlado with seven culturally Deaf participants—This mix of participants allowed an all-sign meeting, so no interpreters were present. This all-sign meeting needed to be videotaped and analyzed because no literature was found on turn-taking mechanisms in chaired sign language meetings, contrary to the literature on turn-taking mechanisms in chaired spoken language meetings (see next section).[5]

4. Some time ago, I asked a couple of Walloon Deaf signers what their language is called. They looked at me in a puzzled way and, after some discussion, came up with the term Langue des Signes Francophone (“French-speaking Sign Language”), which seemed extremely odd to me. Officially, the Féderation Francophone des Sourds de Belgique ( and its Centre Francophone de la Langue des Signes talk about “la Langue des Signes,” or “Sign Language.”

5. The chairperson was the head of the whole school of which the sign language interpreter training program is only one of the training programs. She has, however, frequently chaired these staff meetings.