Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Language Policy and Planning: The Case of Italian Sign Language

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Language Policy and Planning: The Case of Italian Sign Language

Article excerpt

ITALIAN SIGN LANGUAGE (LIS) is the name of the language used by the Italian Deaf community. The acronym LIS derives from Lingua italiana dei segni ('Italian language of signs'), although nowadays Italians refers to LIS as Lingua dei segni italiana, reflecting the more appropriate phrasing "Italian sign language." The original name can be traced back to the 1980s, when the first book on Italian sign language, edited by Virginia Volterra, started circulating both in the Deaf and the hearing communities. The original tide of the book, La lingua italiana dei segni, has changed to La lingua dei segni italiana in the 2004 second edition, and the book is still considered a milestone for those who want a complete introduction to LIS. Before that time there was no name to identify the sign language used by the Italian Deaf community, and the acronym rapidly spread in both the Deaf and the hearing community because it was easy to fingerspell [f^f^] and pronounce. In common (spoken Italian) discourse, the name Lingua italiana dei segni is still used, but in the Deaf community and in the academic world only Lingua dei segni italiana is used.

Other terms sometimes used in the national media are lingua dei gesti (Ht., language of gestures) and lingua dei sordi /sordomuti (Ht., language of the deaf/ deaf-mute). The term sordomuto ('deaf-mute') is still used, although it was changed to sordo ('deaf') by law in 2006 (law no. 95/2006). Although no official census of LIS users exists, the country has approximately seventy thousand signers (Eugeni 2008).

This very short history of the name of the language tells us something about the status of LIS. On the one hand, the Italian Deaf community is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of LIS; on the other hand, other Italians are attempting to deny the status of "language" to LIS.

Historically, Italy's linguistic situation has been that of a multilingual country. Numerous dialects survive together with Italian, the national language. Some of these dialects have been given the special status of minority languages by a specific law (Law 482/1999), and special funds are allotted every year to support them. This law on minority languages is relatively recent; it was approved on December 15, 1999, crucially, eleven years after the first European resolution on the recognition of sign languages in 1988. Nonetheless, it makes no mention of sign language in general or LIS in particular. Furthermore, Italy has long been a divided country with respect to its citizens' views on LIS and the education of deaf people, and that fact has had major consequences for all aspects of language planning. This article illustrates the current situation of language policy and planning (LPP) for LIS. The traditional partition into three discussion areas used by works on spoken languages (see, among others, Cooper 1989), which has been productively applied to the case of American Sign Language (ASL; see, for instance, Reagan 2006) is adopted here. The first section deals with status planning; the second, acquisition planning; and the third, issues surrounding corpus planning.

The Struggle for Recognition: Status Planning

It is widely known that supranational institutions and organizations, like the United Nations and the European Commission, have encouraged states to recognize the national sign languages as the languages of their Deaf communities. Nonetheless, Italy has not yet recognized LIS. In this section I review the main aspects of the ongoing debate on LIS recognition (Quer, Mazzoni, and Sapountzaki 2011). I address these by considering the actions entertained by political institutions, the role of associations for deaf people, and the role of universities and national research institutions.

On the Unofficial Status of LIS

Until recently, public discussions of LIS have not resulted in concrete actions by the national parliament. One of the most relevant initiatives was the petition signed by university professors and researchers working in the domains of linguistics, language, philosophy of language, psychology of language, and communication. …

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