Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

A Barking Dog That Never Bites? the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

A Barking Dog That Never Bites? the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill

Article excerpt

BRITISH SIGN LANGUAGE (BSL), one of Scotland's autochthonous minority languages, is used by 12,533 people1 (Scottish Census 2011). Scottish BSL signers2 are not territorially concentrated but live dispersed throughout Scotland. Unlike Gaelic, one of the main spoken, autochthonous, minority languages in Scotland, BSL has no legal status there or in any other part of the UK and is not protected under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.3 The status of BSL in Scotland may change with the introduction of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Bill, which was lodged in the Scottish Parliament on October 29, 2014. The proposed bill aims to promote the use and understanding of BSL principally by means of "BSL plans," which are to be published by the Scottish ministers and specified public authorities. These plans are to be reviewed and updated at regular intervals and reported on via a performance review.

In some respects this article may seem premature in that the bill was introduced only in October 2014.The main focus here, however, is the pathway to getting the bill proposed. Indeed, we can learn much from these strategies for the development of future sign language legislation, both in the UK and abroad. Data collection has been done through in-depth interviews with people involved in the process (activists, academics, policymakers, staff members of several organizations), analysis of official documents, and participant observation. All of this allowed for the collection of a broad range of views and for data triangulation.

The proposed bill sees legislation for BSL as a language issue.That is not self-evident, given the context in which it was developed, and not self-evident for sign language legislation in general, which is often disability oriented (Reagan 2010; De Meulder forthcoming). But it is a "sterile" bill, which merely perceives BSL as a tool to access public services. It also has significant weaknesses, which result partly from the strategies chosen to achieve it and partly from the general UK and Scotland (language) policy context.These weaknesses are analyzed against the context in which the bill was developed and negotiated. Because the BSL bill is modeled on the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005,4 comparisons with this act and the Gaelic situation are made where applicable.

Linguistic Context and Language Policy in Scotland

Scotland is a part of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Parliament and government have legislative and executive responsibility for a wide range of "devolved matters" (including health, education, justice, rural affairs, and transportation), while the UK government retains responsibility for "reserved matters" (for example tax, equality legislation, employment, defense, and foreign affairs). Scotland has thirty-two local authorities, who have far-reaching functions, including education and social services.

The UK has no constitutional document or any other piece of legislation that defines any particular language as the UK's official language, but English is the de facto official language.5 Although English is the main language of Scotland, too, an estimated 150 other different languages are in use in the country, although many of these have only a few speakers. For the purpose of public policy and to better understand the needs of these languages, the Scottish government often considers them as five main language groups: English, Gaelic, Scots, British Sign Language, and minority/community languages (such as Urdu, Turkish, Arabic, etc., which have been brought to the UK by immigration) (Scottish Government 2007).

Despite changes in the last twenty years, the prevailing linguistic ideology in the UK remains one of monolingualism, in which linguistic diversity still tends to be viewed as a problem that must be overcome rather than a resource that must be fostered (Dunbar 2002). Language planning and legislation tend to be ad hoc, reactive, geographically specific, and based on political expedience and pressure. …

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