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 languagesEndangered 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:
|Date||Researchers||Name||Location||Deaf users||Archive collection|
|2004||Johnston, Trevor||Australian SL||Australia||6,500||link|
|2007||Nyst, Victoria||Mali SL||Mali||link|
|2008||Panda, Sibaji||Alipur Village SL||India||250||link|
|2009||Schuit, Joke||Inuit SL||Canada||50||link|
|2009||Zeshan, Ulrike||Mardin SL||Turkey||40||link|
|2010||Tano, Angoua Jean-Jacques||Cote d’Ivoire SL||Ivory Coast||50,000?||link|
|2012||Hou, Lynn||Chatino SL||Mexico||5||link|
|2012||Lutalo-Kiingi, Sam||Extreme North Cameroon SL||Cameroon||150||link|
|2013||Sze, Felix Yom Binh; Wei, Monica Xiao; Wong, Aaron Yiu Leung||Macau SL||Macau||200||link|
|2013||Woodward, James||Hawaii SL||Hawaii||40||link|
|2014||Adam, Robert||Australian Irish SL||Australia||100||link|
|2017||Braithwaite, Ben||Bay Islands SL||Honduras||4||link|
|2018||Omardeen, Rehana||Providence Island SL||Colombia||20||link|
|2019||Aniz, Vitoria; Godoy, Gustavo||Urubu-Ka’apor SL||Brazil||7-13||link|
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.