Archive: On The Green
Issue: November 14, 2008 - Vol. 44 No. 37

Forum examines linguistic human rights and the state of sign language around the world

Dr. Tove Skutnabb-Kangas of the University of Roskilde in Denmark presents “Linguistic Human Rights of the Deaf—Why, When, and What—And Decided by Whom? The Little Matter of Crimes Against Humanity.” (Also pictured is GIS interpreter Patty Moers-Patterson.)
Moderator Dr. MJ Bienvenu (left) facilitates a panel discussion on sign languages around the world at the October 24 Forum on Linguistic Human Rights and the Future of Sign Languages with (from second left) Dr. Yerker Andersson, who discussed Europe; Gary Malkowski, who represented Canada; Dr. Mike Kemp, who described his findings in Vietnam and Central America; and Julie Hochgesang, who has worked with the signing deaf population in Kenya.

On October 24, Gallaudet presented a one-day Forum on Linguistic Human Rights and the Future of Sign Languages. This event, hosted by the Office of the Provost and the Department of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies, convened leading scholars to discuss critical issues involving the future vitality of sign languages, linguistic diversity, and human rights of deaf people. It also showcased the fruits of the 80-hour Why Sign? video contest held at Gallaudet.

All in the community were invited to attend the free event. Dr. Dirksen Bauman started off the day with an introduction, stating troubling observations echoed by the forum’s guest speakers. “In technologically advanced countries like Denmark and Australia, sign languages are increasingly in danger,” Bauman said. He presented evidence that deaf children’s access to sign language is dwindling. 

Subsequent presentations included Tove Skutnabb-Kangas’ “Linguistic Human Rights of the Deaf - Why, When, and What - And Decided by Whom? The Little Matter of Crimes Against Humanity.” A professor emeritus from the University of Roskilde in Denmark and internationally recognized leader in Linguistic Human Rights, Dr Skutnabb-Kangas framed the issue of early exposure to bilingual education for deaf children as a human right, and should be enforced as such.

This presentation was followed by “Language Loss and Revitalization: Ten Things We Know” by Dr. Kendall King of the University of Minnesota. Dr. King discussed her work in the revilatization of the Quechua language in South America, raising critical strategies for the Deaf community to consider as it confronts its own language revitalization projects.

Gallaudet University’s own Dr. Ben Bahan, Chair of the ASL and Deaf Studies department gave the final keynote address, Sign Languish or Flourish?” Dr. Bahan raised the issue that sign languages will be reslilient amidst external pressures, given that they are rooted in the human proclivity to gesture.  This basic aspect of the human character will ensure the survival of sign languages.

These three presentations were followed by  “Sign Languages Around The World,” a panel discussion moderated by American Sign Language and Deaf Studies professor MJ Bienvenu, brought together a well-traveled group of linguists. Dr. Yerker Andersson discussed Europe; Gary Malkowski represented Canada; Dr. Mike Kemp described his findings in Vietnam and Central America; and Julie Hochgesang shared her analysis after working with the signing deaf population in Kenya.

The day concluded with a showing of 10 student-made films competing for three prizes in the Why Sign? video contest. A panel of Gallaudet judges selected the animated film “Birds of a Feather” by student filmmaker Rebecca Freund as the first-place winner, followed closely by a live action piece by Jay Kowalczyk and Bradley Gantt. Jonathan Lewis, Lawrence Lynch, and Elizabeth Steyer took third place for their piece that combined live action and special effects.

The forum drew a large group of students, scholars, faculty, and staff to the visu-centric James Lee Sorenson Language and Communication Center atrium. Many left discussing what they had seen, and asking where they could take a closer look at the presentations.

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