The signs they are a-changin’? Not so much.

The inaugural lecture is approaching on 24th May 2022 of our colleague Professor Adam Schembri, a specialist of Sign Languages at the University of Birmingham. Adam’s title is “How is sign language?” and the summary reads:

It is now over sixty years since sign language linguistics emerged as a field of study within the language sciences. In this presentation, I explore some of our studies of Auslan and British Sign Language (the historically related majority sign languages of Australia and the UK respectively), all of which have attempted to build on the finding that sign languages are natural languages by asking the question: what *kind* of languages are they? How much does their structure resemble, and how much does it differ from, spoken languages? How has the social structure of signing communities influenced their structure and use? And what can sign languages teach us about the very nature of human language? Importantly, what benefits can research on these questions have for the linguistic human rights of deaf communities?

Almost 10 years ago I wrote a blog post entitled “Signs of change?” in which I noted that some scholars working in endangered languages documentation had undertaken research on sign languages, but that the funders had not been very supportive of this research.

For example, the list of DoBeS projects funded by the Volkswagen Foundation does not include any sign languages at all, despite the information for applicants stating that “documentation projects may focus on endangered dialects, moribund languages as well as sign languages”. The Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) at SOAS has so far funded eight projects on sign languages

Endangered Languages and Cultures blog post, 30 August 2012 

In the 10 years since that post, ELDP (no longer at SOAS) has only funded a mere six more projects on sign languages (giving a total of 14), among the hundreds of awards they have granted on other endangered and minority languages. Here is the full listing:

DateResearchersNameLocationDeaf usersArchive collection
2004Johnston, TrevorAustralian SLAustralia6,500link
2007Nyst, VictoriaMali SLMali link
2008Panda, SibajiAlipur Village SLIndia250link
2009Schuit, JokeInuit SLCanada50link
2009Zeshan, UlrikeMardin SLTurkey40link
2010Tano, Angoua Jean-JacquesCote d’Ivoire SLIvory Coast50,000?link
2012Hou, LynnChatino SLMexico5link
2012Lutalo-Kiingi, SamExtreme North Cameroon SLCameroon150link
2013Sze, Felix Yom Binh; Wei, Monica Xiao; Wong, Aaron Yiu LeungMacau SLMacau200link
2013Woodward, JamesHawaii SLHawaii40link
2014Adam, RobertAustralian Irish SLAustralia100link
2017Braithwaite, BenBay Islands SLHonduras4link
2018Omardeen, RehanaProvidence Island SLColombia20link
2019Aniz, Vitoria; Godoy, GustavoUrubu-Ka’apor SLBrazil7-13link

It seems to me that this is a sad indictment of one of the major funding agencies that could be supporting urgent research with sign language communities, and is one window on how little things have changed for deaf signers and other users of sign languages in the past 20 years.