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Flemish Sign Language
VGT, Vlaamse Gebarentaal
Signed in Belgium
Region Flanders (northern Belgium) and Brussels-Capital Region
Total signers estimated 6,000
Language family French Sign Language family
  • Flemish Sign Language
Language codes
ISO 639-1 None
ISO 639-2 sgn-BE-VLG
ISO 639-3 bvs

Flemish Sign Language (Vlaamse Gebarentaal or VGT, previously known as Belgian Sign Language) is the language used by signers in Flanders, which is the northern part of Belgium, a country in Western Europe. The Flemish Deaf community is estimated to include approximately 6,000 sign language users (Loots et al., 2003).

Contents

History

When in Flanders the first deaf schools were erected the teachers were influenced by the method used at the Paris deaf school (and consequently also French Sign Language) either directly (by having followed training programs in Paris) or indirectly (by having followed training programs in two deaf schools in The Netherlands; Groningen and Sint-Michielsgestel which were themselves influenced by the Paris school.

However, as with neighboring countries, the education of deaf children was strongly influenced by the resolutions that took place at the Milan Conference in 1880. These resolutions banned the use of signs in the education of deaf children in favour of an oral approach. It has been viewed as a dark day in the history of sign language.

By the beginning of the 20th century there was a Deaf school in every major town in Flanders, and in some towns there were even two: one for boys and one for girls. Most of the schools were residential schools and pupils only went home during the holidays and later on also during the weekends. As a result, regional sign language varieties started to develop around every school.

Regional Variation

It is now generally accepted and confirmed by research, that Flemish Sign Language consists of five regional varieties which have developed in and around the different Flemish deaf schools: West Flanders, East Flanders, Antwerp, Flemish Brabant, and Limburg (De Weerdt et al., 2003).

Next to the differences between the regions, there is intra-regional variation. One example is gender related variation. Until the 1970s, there were separate schools for Deaf boys and girls and this has led to gender variation: some of the signs which are generally used today were boys’ signs or girls’ signs in origin. There are of course more reasons for the relatively high degree of intra-regional variation.

At the moment there is no standardized sign language in Flanders, although there is an on-going process of spontaneous standardization (mostly due to increasing contacts between Deaf people from different regions).

Federalization

Another important aspect influencing sign language in Flanders is the federalization process which has taken place in Belgium during the last two or three decades. Today every Belgian belongs to a certain linguistic group and the same goes for Deaf people. Ironically they are also considered Flemish or Walloon, part of the linguistic majority of speakers of Dutch or French, despite the sign language they use and the linguistic minority to which they belong.

The federalization was a fact in 1993, but this was of course the result of a long process. In the 1970s, the national Deaf federation, NAVEKADOS, split up into a Flemish and a Walloon federation and 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 then, 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 has had its effect on the development of the sign languages in both communities which are deviating from each other as they go through separate standardization processes.

Therefore, the name for the sign language has changed over time from "Belgian Sign Language", to "Flemish-Belgian Sign Language", to the now preferred "Flemish Sign Language".

Legal recognition

On 2006-04-26, the Flemish Parliament unanimously recognised the Flemish Sign Language as a language in Flanders. The decree consists of three major parts:

Recognition
The Flemish Sign Language is recognised as a language in Flanders and Brussels-Capital Region.
Advisory committee
An advisory committee on the Flemish Sign Language is instated, with a maximum of fifteen members, half of which have to be Deaf. Advise can be requested by the Flemish Government or the Flemish Parliament, but the committee can also formulate advises autonomously.
Knowledge and information centre
The decree arranges the recognition of a knowledge and information centre which has to: coordinate and stimulate linguistic research, support the further development of VGT, develop educational tools for use in teaching VGT and be the first point of contact.

References

  • De Weerdt, K., Vanhecke, E., Van Herreweghe, M. & Vermeerbergen, M. 2003. Op (onder)zoek naar de Vlaamse Gebaren-schat. Gent: Cultuur voor Doven.
  • Loots, G., Devisé, I., Lichtert, G., Hoebrechts, N., Van De Ginste, C., & De Bruyne, I. 2003. De gemeenschap van doven en slechthorenden in Vlaanderen. Communicatie, taal en verwachtingen omtrent maatschappelijke toegankelijkheid. Gent: Cultuur voor Doven.

Some of the major reference works for Flemish Sign Language are:

  • Van Herreweghe, M. (1995) De Vlaams-Belgische Gebarentaal: een Eerste Verkenning. Gent: Academia Press.
  • Van Herreweghe, A. (1996) Prelinguaal Dove Jongeren en Nederlands: een Syntactisch Onderzoek. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation. Ghent University.
  • Van Herreweghe, M. & Vermeerbergen, M. (1998). Thuishoren in een Wereld van Gebaren. Gent: Academia Press.
  • Van Herreweghe, M. & Vermeerbergen, M. (2004). 30 Vragen over Gebarentaal in Vlaanderen en 29 Antwoorden. Gent: Academia Press.
  • Vermeerbergen, M. (1997). Grammaticale Aspecten van de Vlaams-Belgische Gebarentaal. Gentbrugge: Cultuur voor Doven.
  • Vermeerbergen, M. (ed). (1999). Grammaticale Aspecten van de Vlaams-Belgische Gebarentaal-videoboek. Affligem: Vlaams-Gebarentaalcentrum.

An electronic dictionary for VGT can be found on the web: http://gebaren.ugent.be.

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