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Dutch Sign Language in the Netherlands

Language designations:

  • In the language itself: Nederlandse Gebarentaal (NGT)


Language vitality according to:

Linguistic aspects:

  • Classification: Sign Language → French Sign Language family. For more information, see dutc1253 at Glottolog
  • No script.

Language standardization

Since there is no script, there is no standardized orthography. However, there is a standardized lexicon consisting of images provided by the Dutch Sign Center (Gebarencentrum) 2).


Language Area

Dutch Sign Language is spoken in the Netherlands, Aruba, Curacao, and Suriname.
There are seven dialects in the Netherlands, five of which developed around the original deaf schools in Groningen, Amsterdam, Voorburg/The Hague, Rotterdam, and Sint Michielsgestel/'s-Hertogenbosch 3) 4).

Speaker numbers

13,000 worldwide: 7,500 as first language, 5,500 as second language 5). See Ethnologue for more information.

Education of the language

History of language education:

Already in the 18th century, deaf schools were founded in the Netherlands, which provided the opportunity to communicate using sign language. Henri Daniel Guyot founded the first deaf school in the Netherlands in 1790 6): the Guyot Institute in Groningen. Other deaf schools followed in 's-Hertogenbosch (1840), Rotterdam (1853), The Hague (1888), and Amsterdam (1911). Until 1915 sign language was used in education. From 1915 to 1980, the use of Dutch Sign Language was forbidden in all deaf schools 7)8). This oral period was the result of the Resolution of Milan in 1880, where hearing teachers decided it would be better for deaf children to be educated solely in a spoken language. This period ended when the results of deaf education proved to be very disappointing and it was shown that sign languages are true languages 9). The oral period was followed by the Total Communication period, when hearing teachers were learning signs and used Signed Dutch (Nederlands met Gebaren), but not Dutch Sign Language. This was not only due to the lack of materials: most professionals did not consider NGT a true language10). In 1995, this method was replaced by a bilingual approach, because research prompted to favour NGT over NmG. The practice of this bilingual policy varies a lot (see Education in practice).

Legislation of language education

Legislation on European Level

The European Union has recognized sign languages as languages in 1988 and advised the member states to officially recognize sign languages 11). In 2003 the PACE recognised sign languages in their Recommendation 1598 (2003): Protection of sign languages in the member states of the Council of Europe.

The Netherlands has not recognised NGT as a minority language under the Charter for Regional and Minority languages, though there have been various calls and petitions to do so. 12)13)14)15)

Legislation on National Level

In 1997, the government stated that a standardized lexicon was a condition to recognize NGT. This basic lexicon was developed16) After years of seeking recognition, the language was legally recognized as official language by the Dutch Parliament in September 2020 17), which was approved by the Senate on October 13 2020. 18) The law came in force on March 16, 2021.

Before this official legal recognition, there were a few implicit legal recognitions19)20). For example, there is a right to education in NGT and to have sign interpreters, and organizations that do research on NGT receive subsidy. Moreover, there is the establishment of bachelor's-degree programs in NGT teacher and interpreter training21).

De Wet erkenning Nederlandse Gebarentaal

TheWet erkenning Nederlandse Gebarentaal (Eng: Law recognition of Dutch Sign Language) came into force on March 16, 2021. The law recognizes NGT and states the language can be used in administrative and legal communication. The law also establishes a Advisory Council, which shall advise to promote the use of NGT in society.

Wet op de expertisecentra

The Wet op expertisecentra (1982) states that the entire school career of 'auditive or communicative handicapped' students should be improved by supportive measures, it also states that students from primary level to tertiary level can be supported by an interperter. Additionaly, the Besluit kerndoelen WEC (Eng: Decree Curricular Targets WEC), signed in 2009, states that NGT can be offered as primary language, and makes bilingual education possible with NGT as primary language and Dutch as secondary language.

Bodies controlling enforcement of educational laws:

The Dutch Deaf Council (Dovenschap) has been working with researchers, organizations in deaf education and the organization of parents of deaf children (FODOK) for 30 years to improve deaf people's accessibility to the hearing society, change the status of NGT and implement a sign-language policy.

The Dutch Sign Center can be viewed as a national institution supporting and promoting the teaching and learning of NGT. This is an independent national center funded by the Department of Education for NGT lexicography.

The universities of Utrecht, Nijmegen, and Amsterdam also play an important role in the language planning of Dutch Sign Langauge.

Education in practice


Since 2012, the wet passend onderwijs (Eng: law for fitted education) is in place, which has the motto “regular where possible, special when needed”22) 23). For pupils with hearing problems, this means a Committee of Research will decide, with the advice of school and parents, in which form of education the child will be placed, and for how long.24) There are three options: light, medium and intensive:25)

  • Light:
    Pupils attend a regular school with a special needs assistant;26)
  • Medium:
    Pupils attend a regular school with a special needs unit, and where more children with hearing issues come together (minimum of 8-10 children on average);27)
  • Intensive:
    Pupils attend a school specialised in their needs. This can be a school for the Deaf or a so-called “school in school”, where a small school for the Deaf is placed within a regular school. 28)29)

Schools for deaf pupils

There are several schools for the Deaf in the Netherlands:

  • The Institute for the Deaf in 's-Hertogenbosch, the deaf school with the history of the strictest oral policy, started implementing NGT in education in 1997. It currently provides primary and secondary education,
  • The Rudolf Mees Institute in Rotterdam started bilingual projects and teamteaching in 1991. The first grades are bilingual, while the higher grades focus more on NGT,
  • The J.C. Ammanschool in Amsterdam provides primary and secondary education. It applies teamteaching and teaches subjects in both Dutch and NGT. They focus on the content and communication instead of the specific language and have developed their own colour system for writing in Dutch.
  • The Guyot Institute for the Deaf in Groningen provides primary and secondary education for deaf and hearing impaired children. It was the first to adopt a bilingual policy and hired more deaf signers as teachers and other personnel. It is the only one that offers bilingual secondary education at HAVO level (higher general secondary education) in the Netherlands. From the beginning of the curriculum, mostly NGT is used and teamteaching is applied here as well. The school also offers accomodation for pupils who live too far away to commute every day. In 2015, due to the educational reform which aims to place all students in regular schools, the Dutch State wanted to close this accomodation, as it was not seen as an essential expense for education 30)31), however, this was rejected by a motion in the Dutch Parliament in 2016.32)
  • The Institute for the Deaf Effatha in The Hague provides provide primary, secondary, and adult education. It already establishes a basis for bilingualism in preschool. The first grades are bilingual, and the pupils learn Dutch using their first language, NGT33)34).

Siméa is the umbrella organisation for the four educational organisations for cluster 2 schools, wich are schools specialised for pupils who have a linguistic development disorder, who are hearing impaired or deaf.

Outcomes of education:

So far, there has been no research on the question whether bilingual education for deaf students gives better learning outcomes than other forms of education. It is known that the proficiency in NGT of deaf children with hearing parents lags behind on that of deaf children with deaf parents, but it is unclear why this is the case35).

Difficulties in education:

Difficulties in the education of NGT are the lack of teaching and testing materials in the language and the small amount of deaf teachers. Also, teachers' level of NGT proficiency is insufficient in many schools36). Another challenge is the increase in number of very young children with a cochlear implant37), since their parents are often advised to use Signed Dutch with their child instead of Dutch Sign Language. As a result, these parents demand hearing teachers who use Signed Dutch or send their child to regular instead of special education.

Preservation of the language:

Although the use of NGT was forbidden in deaf schools in the oral period, people still used it outside of school. This way, the language was not lost, but it did cause regional and even generational differences. More importantly, the status of NGT was greatly affected by the oral period: in that period it was seen as a language inferior to spoken Dutch 38). The return of Dutch Sign Language in education has certainly added to the prestige of the language, showing people that NGT is a true language. Generally, users of NGT no longer feel ashamed to use their mother tongue.

Learning resources and educational institutions

  • Kentalis offers various courses
    • Nederlandse Gebarentaal module 1 (Doorbraak), module 2 (Tussenstap I), module 3 (Tussenstap II)
    • Nederlandse Gebarentaal level B1 (purchased from the 'Instituut voor Gebaren, Taal en Dovenstudies' at the Hogeschool Utrecht)
    • Nederlandse Gebarentaal Oudermodule (course for parents) 1, 2, 3, and 4
  • And includes twenty schools for special primary and secondary education
  • The University of Amsterdam offers the opportunity to learn Dutch Sign Language in the programme of linguistics
  • The group Sprong Vooruit has developed the teaching materials 'Ik & Ko' and 'Taal op Maat' for primary education
2) , 20)
Schermer, T., Vermeerbergen, M. (2004). Nederlandse Gebarentaal en Vlaamse Gebarentaal: zussen of verre nichtjes? Ons Erfdeel, 47:4, 569-575.
Eberhard, David M., Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.) (2020). Sign Language of the Netherlands. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. SIL International.
Doof. (n.d.) De Nederlandse Gebarentaal. Retrieved July 1, 2020 from
6) , 38)
Schermer, T. (2009). Inleiding De Nederlandse Gebarentaal. In Schermer, T., Koolhof, C. (Eds.), Van Dale Basiswoordenboek Nederlandse Gebarentaal (pp. 16-24). Van Dale Uitgevers.
7) , 9) , 10) , 11) , 16) , 19) , 34)
Schermer, T. (2012). Sign Language Planning in the Netherlands between 1980 and 2010. Sign Language Studies, 12:4, 467-493.
Koenen, L., Bloem, T., Janssen, R., Van de Ven, A. (1998). Gebarentaal. De taal van doven in Nederland. Uitgeverij Atlas.
Commissie Nederlandse gebarentaal (1997). Meer dan een Gebaar.
Ministerie van Binnenlandse Zaken Nederland. (2019). Zesde rapportage van Nederland: 2015-2018. Onder artikel 15, eerste lid, van het Europees Handvest voor regionale talen of talen van minderheden.
Dovenschap (2017). Tijd voor erkenning van de Nederlandse Gebarentaal. Petities.
Dovenschap (2018, Oct 18). Notitie erkenning Nederlandse gebarentaal.
Parlementaire Monitor (2020). Stemmingen in verband met het Voorstel van wet van de leden Kuiken, Dik-Faber en Van Eijs ter erkenning van de Nederlandse gebarentaal (Wet erkenning Nederlandse gebarentaal)(34562). Retrieved from
Nederlands Gebarencentrum (2021). Erkenning Nederlandse Gebarentaal nu officiëel. Nederlands Gebarencentrum.
Translated from: “Regulier als het kan, speciaal als het moet”
De Boer, A. A., Van der Worp, A. J. (2016). De impact van passend onderwijs op het SO/SBO en het VSO. Nationaal Regieorgaan Onderwijsonderzoek.
24) , 25) , 26) , 28)
Kentalis (n.d.). Aanmelden onderwijs. Koninklijke Kentalis.
27) , 29)
Kentalis (n.d.). School-in-school & mediumsetting. Koninklijke Kentalis.
Doof. (2015, December 15). Doveninternaat Haren dicht.
NOS. (2016, February 10). Dekker blijft bij sluiting doveninternaat.
RTV Noord (February 18, 2016). Doveninternaat in Haren blijft open .
33) , 36)
Soeters, M. (1999). Gebaren uit de doofpot. Studie naar doven, tweetaligheid en de ontwikkeling van toetsmateriaal in de Nederlandse Gebarentaal. Retrieved from:
35) , 37)
Knoors, H. (2011). Herijkt taalbeleid voor dove kinderen. VHZ. Retrieved from:
languages/dutch_sign_language_in_nl.txt · Last modified: 2021/05/25 17:07 by ydwine

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