Sign languages are a very diverse family of visual-gestural languages. Those languages are as various as we know from all spoken languages with different grammar, syntax, cultures, cultures, and histories. Each country has its own sign language which is incomparable with the one of another country. People in families with sign languages grow up and acquire the words, techniques, gestures, as well as meanings the same as people in families of spoken languages. To gain more insights into sign languages, Dr Verena Krausneker as well as Mag. Lydia Fenkart, who both share deep connections with sign languages and deaf education, participated in our expert series of Multilingualism Matters to bring more light to the value and importance of sign languages.
About V. Krausneker and L. Fenkart
Dr Verena Krausneker is a sociolinguist at the University of Vienna. She has been a researcher and lecturer since 2002 with the main focus on Language Policies and Sign Languages in Deaf Education. Dr Krausneker was a board member of the Austrian Deaf Association and further served as an expert for the World Federation of Deaf. She was also the lead researcher in the Strategic Partnership Developing and Documenting Sign Bilingual Best Practices in Schools. Apart from her academic work, she also co-founded the NGO Zara, which is Austria’s leading Antiracist Organization, and actively participates as a volunteer in civil society.
Mag. Lydia Fenkart is a native signer, teacher, and university lecturer of Austrian Sign Language and Deaf Studies, which includes deaf culture, history, and more. She is an activist at the Austrian Deaf Association and at the NGO organization Plig – Platform, Inklusion, und Gebärdensprache. Furthermore, she worked for years on the project Just Do Sign Language Dictionary. She initially desired to become a lawyer. However, this path involved a lot of barriers, and the university had no interpreters for deaf students. Thus, she switched to literature. Due to the lack of sign language books, materials, and resources, she founded Verlag Fenkart, a small publishing company that produces books in sign languages. She personally wrote and signed some of the books for educational purposes.
Relatively to spoken language, sign language, or also visual language, uses mimicking, body movements, gestures, and strong facial expressions to modulate and express feelings and emotions. Moreover, with sign language, you can do anything, from being friendly, having discussions, telling stories, and shouting to speaking Academic sign language. Sign language is very complex and requires a lot of time to learn. Deaf people can also be bilingual or multilingual. It is important that they acquire the languages from early on since it is a difficult process as each sign language has its own versatility.
Diversity of Sign Languages
As diverse as spoken languages are, each country and culture have its own sign language with each of them having its own grammar, syntax, dialect, culture, customs, and history. However, certain sign languages such as French and American have a deep relationship and share similarities. Simultaneously, British sign language has nothing in common with American sign language, as well as German and Austrian sign languages have huge distinctions. Hence, sign languages are not the representation of spoken languages. They are starting their own autochthonous native language in the countries that they are assigned to, which are strongly connected to the deaf community. Therefore, without deaf communities, there would be no sign language.
Within Austria, there are approximately eight to ten thousand members of the deaf community. Even among sign language communities, there is a big distinction. As Dr Krausneker stated, at the core is the deaf community whose mother tongue is sign language and at the fringes are interpreters of sign languages. Additionally, a Canadian researcher has also proven that sign language has the same positive effects on the brain as a spoken language, related for example to the delay of the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Despite facing a long history of conflicts and oppression, the sign language community never gave up their language and continues to spread awareness of the deep roots and significance of sign languages for our society.
Acquiring Sign Languages
It is not a difficult process to teach children sign language. The visual language shares the same milestones and steps as spoken language from early on. According to Dr Krausneker, research has shown that deaf children follow the same patterns of acquiring spoken languages in sign languages as well, starting from babbling up until they can say their first words and read. Children learn the language through observing their environment, their parents, people, and even animals. They start by learning sounds and forming their hands and gestures to make full sentences. However, it is a different situation for children who are not exposed to sign language. For a deaf child who grows up in a family that does not have access to sign language, the process of learning signs is much more complicated, as languages are transferred from one generation to another.
Spoken and sign languages share one important aspect, which is diversity. Each language differentiates itself from another. It has its own roots and culture which makes it incredibly unique and valuable. It connects communities and strengthens their relationships and creates friendships. The ability to speak and understand sign language is another worthwhile knowledge that expands our horizons.
Sign language is the equal of speech, lending itself equally to the rigorous and the poetic, to philosophical analysis, or to making love. – Oliver Sacks
Final words: SIETAR Austria and The Multilingual Garden would like to express their appreciation and gratitude to Dr Verena Krausneker and Mag. Lydia Fenkart for participating in our series for spreading more awareness of the advantages and importance of sign languages.
You can find further information about Mag. Lydia Fenkart and Verlag Fenkart at: https://www.fenk-art.com/verlag
You can find further information about Dr Verena Krausneker at: https://homepage.univie.ac.at/verena.krausneker/
Furthermore, we are grateful to Dr Karin Martin for leading The Multilingual Garden and continually acknowledging the value of multilingualism in our societies.
References and Sources:
YouTube Link to Expert Talk with Mag. Lydia Fenkart and Dr. Verena Krausneker:
Information about The Multilingual Garden: https://www.linkedin.com/company/the-multilingual-garden/?trk=ppro_cprof&originalSubdomain=at
Cover Image Art by Eloise Schneider: https://eloiseart.redbubble.com; https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/eloise-elaine-schneider