Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Ideologies and Attitudes toward Sign Languages: An Approximation

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

Ideologies and Attitudes toward Sign Languages: An Approximation

Article excerpt

Language can be viewed as being influenced by powerful ideological positions.

Peter Garrett, Attitudes to Language

It is an implicit or explicit assumption of much language policy and provision that attitudes can or should change.

Cohn Baker, Attitudes and Languages

"What an ugly language!" There it was. For the first time in nearly twenty years, somebody who was voicing a negative opinion about Austrian Sign Language.The speaker had just heard that I was a sign language linguist, and she immediately apologized for her spontaneous negative response. With grimaces of embarrassment she explained that she found the facial movements of the sign language interpreters she had seen on TV exaggerated and ugly. But I was not offended. Instead, I was surprised and amused because this was the first such incident in years and years of consistent "Oh, that's so interesting. Can I ask you a question?" type responses to my profession. I had never encountered overtly communicated negative attitudes toward sign languages as such.

Attitudes toward a language or a feature of a language, toward language use or language as a group marker are all examples of language attitudes (Cooper and Fishman 1974, 6). Attitude research does not have a long history in linguistics, and there is surprisingly little theoretical work in linguistics (as opposed to a wealth of attitude research in the field of social psychology). A typical analysis of attitude per se generally comprises three parts: an affective component, a cognitive component, and readiness for action (Rosenberg and Hovland i960, cited in Baker 1992).The affective component concerns feelings toward an object or a topic, and the cognitive component concerns thoughts and beliefs, while the two components may or may not add up to a "logical" whole. And the conative component contains the plan or behavioral intention for acting on the attitude.

In twenty years as a sign language linguist I have encountered mostly cognitive interest in sign languages, and rarely have my con-versation partners openly communicated the affective aspects. In practice, most publications on language attitudes focus narrowly on the perception of a specific use of language, especially different types of production (pronunciation). Most studies look at attitudes on language variation, dialect, and speech style. Empirical research often matches certain speech styles with stereotypes of the speakers. But I agree with Baker's wide definition of relevant areas of language attitudes:

Language attitude is an umbrella term, under which resides a variety of specific attitudes. For example, research has variously focused on:

* attitude to language variation, dialect and speech style

* attitude to learning a new language

* attitude to a specific minority language (e.g., Irish)

* attitude to language groups, communities and minorities

* attitude to language lessons

* attitude to the uses of a specific language

* attitude of parents to language learning

* attitude to language preference. (Baker 1992, 29)

The Language and Its Users

"It is perhaps the least surprising thing imaginable to find that attitudes towards languages and their varieties seem to be tied to attitudes towards groups of people" (Preston 2002, 40). In everyday communication we find great uncertainty in what to call the users of sign languages. People say to me, "You work with the disabled," and reduce my friends and colleagues to a word that I do not believe describes them well. What sign language users are called (and how they are seen) is of course hugely relevant in the political negotiation of how to approach and deal with sign languages.Thus, reflecting on attitudes toward sign languages while ignoring attitudinal developments with regard to those who use them or vice versa is impossible. As Burns et al. note, "It is extremely difficult to separate the two since attitudes toward a language are often intimately connected with those toward its users. …

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