Parliamentary Assembly session : 31 March – 4 April 2003 

Malcolm Bruce: “Sign languages are languages in their own right”

Greater Europe contains about 3 million deaf people, many of whom communicate through sign languages, which are taught and recognised to differing degrees depending on the country. These languages should be protected by the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages in order to ensure that they are taught, used and encouraged, according to British Member of Parliament Malcolm Bruce, author of a report which is due to be discussed by the Parliamentary Assembly on 1st April 2003. The debate will be interpreted in the sign language.

Question: While pointing out that sign languages are one of the best ways of integrating deaf people into society, your report regrets that they are insufficiently known by the public as a whole. How can this lack of knowledge be corrected?

Malcolm Bruce: Public ignorance and inadequate promotion of sign languages often go hand in hand. Deaf people’s associations, with whom I have prepared this report, are enthusiastic about the idea of European recognition of their languages, since it would help guarantee their development, as the Scandinavian and Finnish experience shows. Finland recognises sign language as a minority language in the same way as Sami or Swedish, and has 600 interpreters. The growing number of deaf people entering university in Finland and Sweden proves the effectiveness of these policies, which should become widespread.

Question: Your report emphasises that sign languages are languages in their own right. What characterises them?

Malcolm Bruce: In Europe alone, there are 44 separate sign languages, which are sometimes inspired by each other but are frequently very different. They are very rich, with possibilities for abstract or poetic expression comparable to those of oral languages. Other forms of communication exist, but the majority of experts, like deaf people themselves, recognise that sign languages are best adapted to deaf people’s needs. These are genuine languages, and consequently they have a place in the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. I suggest that the Charter be supplemented by an additional protocol, specifically focussing on sign languages, which would be simplest way of including it rapidly in the text.

Question: What is the future of sign languages in the medium term, in the light of technological or medical progress, such as cochlear implants?

Malcolm Bruce: These implants are technological marvels, but we have insufficient perspective to assess their real effectiveness. They certainly don’t make sign languages obsolete. Also, the number of deaf children is falling, but the proportion of deaf people is rising as the population ages. Sign languages will help them to remain in contact with the world. In Sweden, hearing persons can learn sign language during their studies as a second language. This option should be extended throughout Europe, since it is much easier to learn this language when one is young rather than later on. Sign languages remain completely relevant for deaf people as well as for hearing persons!