The fourth language

Anne Darby

In 1993 the British government recognised Welsh as an official language of Britain, and last year recognised the Gaelic and Irish languages. It is thought that there are half a million bilingual people in Wales, but the bilingual population of Scotland and of the six counties of Northern Ireland is closer to 50,000 in each case.

Statistics are hard to come by, but at a conservative estimate there are 50,000 deaf people in the Britain who have no functional understanding of written English and whose only language is British Sign Language (BSL). Then there is a large group of culturally deaf people who are bilingual in BSL and English, plus a large number of people who use BSL to access meetings, communicate with deaf members of their family, friends and work colleagues. In Britain over 100,000 hearing people have learned BSL at evening classes. But at present there are no services available to distribute public information, news and entertainment in BSL.

The language of the deaf community has always been controversial, mainly because of the debates about the need of deaf children to use it to give full access to education. Roughly these fall into two camps with deaf people arguing that children need access to BSL, and the hearing education system arguing that they need exclusive access to speech. In 1880, this argument was won by the "Oralists" at an international conference in Milan, a date that the deaf community holds in the same significance as other people in Britain mark 1066. Deaf teachers lost their jobs, and without the development of educated leaders, the deaf community lost its profile.

In the late 1960s, linguists in the US recognised American Sign Language (ASL) as a language in its own right, with linguistic structures, and they started to identify the grammatical rules and syntax that governed the language. In 1975, British Sign Language was also identified as a language in its own right by British university researchers, the development of video allowing for research and documentation of the language. Margaret Hodge, the current Minister for Disabled People, recently insulted the deaf community, and impugned the academic standing of these professional linguists, by claiming that the status of BSL as a language was debatable.

The British Deaf Association (BDA) was established by deaf people in 1890 in response to the Conference of Milan. Without a pool of educated deaf people, the BDA was run by hearing social workers who, seeing the effect of the failings of the oral education system, promoted the use of sign language.

The declaration of BSL as a full language, together with the documentation of the failure of the education system, gave heart to the deaf community. Deaf people began to take more power in the BDA during the 1980s encouraged by a radical deaf rights group, the National Union of the Deaf, and began to press the government to recognise BSL as a language.

The government was resistant: they denied funds for research into BSL and into the education of deaf children. John Major, Prime Minister at the time, wrote to a deaf woman saying that the government would never recognise BSL as an official British language despite the European Parliament calling on member states in 1989 to recognise their indigenous languages, and more recently to sign the Council of Europe's Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

The Labour Government has seemed to want to present itself as more receptive to the views of the deaf community, but in practice very little has changed. The Chief Executive of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, an organisation close to the Labour government, recently told a deaf woman that the British government will not recognise BSL. When challenged, he told her that his remarks had not been correctly interpreted: that he in fact said "the government will not recognise sign language next week".

Today the organisations of and for deaf people are under pressure from a new organisation, the Federation of Deaf People (FDP) formed two years ago. The FDP has picked up where the NUD left off and has acted as a focus for young radical deaf people who are bilingual and have a strong sense of their deaf identity. The issues of language, identity and culture are so bound up together that minority culture and artistic expression can only be developed and delivered in the language of the community.

Last year the FDP organised the first ever petition and march for the recognition of BSL through London. After handing in the 32,000+ petition at Downing Street, 4000 deaf people and their allies congregated in Trafalgar Square. It was an empowering experience, and this year's marches are planned for Derby and Nottingham in May, in London on 8 July, and then in Birmingham.

But if the lobbying of MPs, petitioning, meetings with Ministers and marches are seen to have no effect, the advice of Welsh Language campaigners at the FDP conference last November has begun to be absorbed by the British deaf community. Activists are already considering and debating nonviolent direct action and have honed their skills on the medical establishment, who experiment with deaf babies via cochlear implantation in the hope of "defeating deafness" and providing a cure through brain surgery. Genetic manipulation is also a threat to the deaf community as it sends a message that our presence is so undesirable and we are so "imperfect" that we must be manipulated out of society.

2001 will be the EU's European Year of Language: how will it be marked by the British government in respect of the fourth indigenous language, British Sign Language?

Anne Darby works with the Federation of Deaf People (FDP)
FDP (Nottingham Branch) tel +44 115 911 1734; email anne.darby@bluecom.net.