Legal Pathways to the Recognition of Sign Languages: A Comparison of the Catalan and Spanish Sign Language Acts

Article excerpt

Despite being minority languages like many others, sign languages have traditionally remained absent from the agendas of policy makers and language planning and policies. In the past two decades, though, this situation has started to change at different paces and to different degrees in several countries.1 In this article I describe the highlights of the process that led to the legal recognition of Catalan Sign Language Llengua de signes catalana, LSC) in the context of Catalonia and Spain, and I analyze the parallelisms and the differences in both processes. Finally, I review the new perspectives and the challenges that have arisen as a consequence of these processes.

LSC as a Language on Its Own

The current name for the language under discussion did not appear until the 1980s, when the labels Llenguatge de signes cátala and Llengua de signes catalana began being used (Frigo la 2010, 46-47). Before that, it was rather common to refer to the gestural communication system employed by deaf individuals as mímica, gestos, mans, or signes ('mimics, gestures, hands, signs'). In fact, the term llenguatge 'language system or capacity' was often used as a result of the misconception that signers shared a unique system all over the world (with local variants), and sometimes it was also assumed that this language had been consciously designed as an artificial code to fulfill the communicative needs of deaf infividuals.2

However, in the mid-twentieth century, linguists such as Ben Tervoort and William Stokoe started providing the first unquestionable evidence that sign languages display the characteristic properties of any natural language despite their modality difference with respect to spoken languages. In addition, through Deaf associations, signing communities began seeking emancipation as linguistic minorities and fighting for their rights: In addition to seeing their languages deprived of legal and institutional recognition as indigenous languages of the territories where they are used, signers were hindered from exercising their civil rights in many areas. These were consequences of the linguistic barrier that resulted from the general ignorance of their first language and the prejudices associated with it. It is very telling that the first published LSC lexicon carried the title Lenguaje de signos manuales (Language of Manual Signs; Perelló and Frigola 1985), without any further adjective to identify its territorial scope.

It was the contact between Catalan signers and signers from the rest of the country that revealed the noticeable differences between the Catalonian variant and those used outside that territory. As Frigola (2010, 46) reports anecdotally, at a Spanish theater festival in sign, the majority of the audience had trouble understanding the language used by the actors from Barcelona. A similar problem arose with sign language (SL) videos that had been produced in Catalonia. Within the Deaf association movement it became clear that the SL variety used in the principality of Catalonia was quite different from the rest. This was reflected in the observation made in 1987 in the entry on Spanish SL that appeared in the Gallaudet Encyclopedia of Deaf People and Deafness:

The small differences in gestures throughout Spain do not impede comprehension in any way. The only exception is Catalonia, where there is a quite differentiated and "native" sign language, even though the common gestures of Spanish Sign predominate. (Pinedo Peydró 1987, 108)

Despite recognizing linguistic proximity, an autochthonous variant was identified in Catalonia as so significantly differentiated as to hinder mutual intelligibility. The only studies to date on SL variation in Spain are Parkhurst and Parkhurst (2001, 2007). As a first approximation, these works seek to establish the degree of differentiation among the varieties in Spain on the basis of three criteria: intelligibility, lexical resemblance in a list of 217 concepts, and linguistic attitudes. …