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Rating the vitality of sign languages

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Title: Rating the vitality of sign languages
Authors: Bickford, J. Albert
Lewis, Paul
Simons, Gary
Issue Date: 03 Mar 2013
Description: The Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS, Authors 2010), based on Fishman’s (1991) earlier GIDS, was developed with spoken languages in mind. As such, some wording and criteria in it do not apply easily to signed languages, reflecting the fact that signed languages have not figured prominently in the literature on language endangerment. In this paper, we propose a modification and refinement of EGIDS that is equally applicable to signed and spoken languages.

Some modifications are trivial, such as replacing “speakers” with “users” or “speakers/signers”. Since transmission of sign languages is usually not from parent to child (a relatively small proportion of deaf children have parents who know a sign language), phrases such as “transmitting [the language] to their children” need to be rewritten to put the emphasis on whether children are learning the language, not who they are learning it from. Some changes are considerably more challenging, however, such as the importance of writing. Although writing systems have been devised for some sign languages, no signing community makes regular, widespread use of a writing system. Yet, many signed languages are used in schools and thus have institutional support and other mechanisms of standardization that parallels what happens in spoken languages with established writing systems. We propose, therefore, that the key criteria that distinguish EGIDS levels 4 (Educational) and 5 (Developing) from level 6a (Vigorous) is not writing but the extent of standardization and institutional support, particularly from the formal educational system. Similarly, it is necessary to characterize normal use of a language (not in written form) in a way that does not use the word “oral”, which presupposes spoken languages. Instead, we propose “face-to-face communication”.

In making these modifications, some larger questions about language vitality of signed and spoken languages have needed to be considered. What sociolinguistic characteristics of signed languages result in a level of vitality that is comparable to a given level for spoken languages? Or, to put it another way, to what extent are signed and spoken languages affected by the same factors, and when there are differences, are these differences analogous between the two modalities? Are signed languages more or less robust than spoken languages when facing analogous pressures? (Anecdotal evidence suggests that sign languages are very resistant to replacement by spoken languages, but very easily replaced by other sign languages.) The revised EGIDS provides a first step toward answering such questions.
Rights: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Appears in Collections:3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC)

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