User Tools

Site Tools


Flemish Sign Language in Belgium

Language designations:

  • In the language itself: Vlaamse Gebarentaal (VGT)

| |

Vlaanderen | Gebaren | Taal 1)

Language vitality according to:

Linguistic aspects:

  • Classification: Sign Language → French Sign Language family. For more information, see vlaa1235 at Glottolog
  • No script. The fingerspelling system is similar to that of French Sign Language 2).

Language standardisation

Since there is no script, there is no standardised orthography. However, in 1979, the Federation of Flemish Deaf Organisations ( Fevlado, which is renamed Doof Vlaanderen since October 2017) decided to develop 'unified' signs and established a sign committee with deaf signers from different regions. They met monthly for 15 years to select standard 'unified' signs for Dutch words 3).


Language Area

Flemish Sign Language is spoken in the northern part of Belgium. There are different regional dialects which developed in different deaf schools: West Flanders, East Flanders, Antwerp, Flemish Brabant and Limburg 4).

Speaker numbers

There are 6,000 native speakers of Flemish Sign Language worldwide 5).

Education of the language

History of language education:

The first deaf (girls') school in Flanders was founded in 1820 in Ghent, and in 1825 the second deaf school was founded, which was a boys' school. In both schools the teachers based their methods on the one used in Paris, so there were close links between Old French Sign Language and the sign language used in Flanders. Over time, teachers began to prefer the 'oral method', but signs were still used. With the Milan Congress in 1880, sign languages were banned from the classroom in deaf schools and from society. Interestingly, the general pattern in Flanders was that in girls' schools signs were banned completely and students were punished for using signs, while in boys' schools signs were only banned from the classroom, but not from other school settings. This might be related to the fact that the brothers working in the boys' schools knew signs, while the sisters in the girls' schools did not. Girls might therefore be punished because the school staff could not understand what they were saying if they used signs 6).

Even though the Flemish Deaf community had abandoned Signed Dutch in favour of VGT in the late 1990s, in deaf schools this was not implemented. Here, either strictly oral or monolingual programs supporting spoken Dutch were in use. In addition, speechreading by means of written Dutch, fingerspelling and/or Signed Dutch were used. There was some openness toward VGT, since some schools offered VGT and/or Deaf Culture classes. In 1998, one school started to offer bilingual-bicultural education with VGT as first language 7).

Legislation of language education

International Legislation

EU Resolutions

On June 17, 1988, the European Parliament signed the Resolution on Sign Languages 1988 and the Resolution on Sign Languages 1998 ten years later which both called for the recognition, improvement and support of sign languages.

European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages

Flemish Sign Language is not protected by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (1992), as Belgium has not signed nor ratified the Charter.

UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) is the first international human rights convention that explicitly considers sign languages to be languages (Article 21)8). This Convention is signed (2007) and ratified (2009) by Belgium 9)

National/Regional Legislation

In 2003, French Belgian Sign Language was recognised by the Parliament of Francophone Community in Belgium, which improved the reputation of sign language in Flanders as well. In 2004, the first deaf Member of the Flemish Parliament was elected, and in the same year the Deaf Action Front (Doof Actie Front) was founded, which had as its main aim the recognition of VGT10). A petition was started, which was submitted to the Flemish Parliament in 2005 11) . On April 26, 2006, the decree regarding the recognition of the Flemish Sign Language was adopted by the Flemish Parliament. The election of the first deaf MP (Helga Stevens ) might have influenced this decision, since the MPs were now confronted with VGT on a daily basis. In addition, this positive development may have been influenced by the language’s namegiving in 2001, Vlaamse Gebarentaal12), which gave it clear linguistic boundaries, and by the fact that the Flemish Parliament became in charge of the language (Citation needed).

In the decree regarding the recognition of VGT

  • the language is recognised as the language of the Flemish Deaf community (which is a symbolic recognition);
  • the Flemish Sign Language Advisory Board is established;
  • yearly funding is given to projects 'that contribute to the societal anchorage of VGT'
  • a centre of expertise with respect to VGT is recognised and funded (the Flemish Sign Language Centre).

The decree does not create educational linguistic rights: the rights of deaf children to acquire VGT from an early age, to be educated in VGT if they want to and for their parents to be supported in learning VGT are almost non-existent 13).

Belgium has the most segregated education system in Europe 14). However, in 2014 the M-decree stated that special education continues to exist, but that inclusive education is the first option. This decree came into force in the schoolyear of 2015. Regarding VGT interpreters in education, in 2013 the right of students in primary, secondary, higher and adult education to have a VGT interpreter for 70% of class hours was established in the decree on Education (Onderwijsdecreet ODXXIII). Since the schoolyear of 2015, this right has increased to 100% of class hours 15).

Support structure for education of the language:

Learning Materials

From the late 1990s onward, teaching materials are developed by the Flemish Sign Language Centre. This Centre, together with Deaf Flanders and the deaf schools, also works on projects on lexical gaps in the educational domains of mathematics, history and geography 16). However, there are not enough learning materials and methods for the subjects VGT and Deaf Culture 17).

Teacher Training

There is no specific teacher training programme for students who will be teaching deaf children. In 2003, the first 'teachers VGT' graduated: they replaced the subject Dutch by VGT in their programme. Teacher training programmes may not be very accessible for deaf students due to the lack of qualified VGT interpreters, and subjects such as VGT and Deaf Culture are not present in the regular curriculum of teacher training programmes 18).

The lack of qualified deaf teachers is thus a great difficulty, and often hearing teachers don't have adequate language skills in VGT 19). In Flanders there are very few qualified signing deaf teachers active in education. In many schools there are no deaf teachers or employees, or they are only teaching the subjects VGT and Deaf Culture. In the past, qualified deaf teachers have resigned because the vision of the schools made them unattractive working environments 20).

Promotion of language education

  • Both Fevlado (now Deaf Flanders) and the Flemish Sign Language Advisory Board advocate the developmet of a bilingual education system including deaf children. A research project of Fevlado in 2014-2015 showed the most suitable and feasible system would be bilingual classes in which VGT and written Dutch are the languages of instruction. This system should include deaf, bilingual teachers and a curriculum with Dutch, VGT and deaf cultural themes 21).
  • Deaf Flanders (Doof Vlaanderen) organises courses VGT for individuals as well as organisations (previously courses were offered by Fevlado-Diversus, but this is now part of Deaf Flanders as well). Members of this organisation are, among other things, concerned with the offer of bilingual upbringing and education in Dutch and VGT and the representation of VGT in the media. A website for parents of deaf children was created by this organisation to inform and connect these parents (Mijn Kind is Doof). Another project of Deaf Flanders was the campaign 'Flemish Sign Language is alive and kicking' (Vlaamse Gebarentaal Leeft) in 2008, which included a 30-second TV commercial broadcast on national television, flyers and a website.
  • The Flemish Sign Language Advisory Board (Adviescommissie Vlaamse Gebarentaal) advises the Flemish government in all matters related to VGT, including education, and formulates proposals regarding these topics.
  • The Flemish Sign Language Centre (Vlaams Gebarentaal Centrum) focuses mostly on research and maintaining the dictionary. They study the grammar of VGT, disseminate the results of this research, provide information regarding VGT and support projects and initiatives regarding VGT. One of the projects is Corpus VGT, which is a collection of videos with conversations in VGT and which can be used for research and education. The government recognised this Centre in 2008 as 'knowledge and coordination centre for the Flemish Sign Language', but they still receive insufficient funding to carry out all tasks and to guarantee a smooth and structural operation.
  • VLOK-CI (Vlaamse Ouders van Kinderen met een Cochleaire Inplant) is an organisation for hearing parents of deaf children who have trouble teaching their children VGT. This organisation is not in favour of bilingual education.
  • In 2012, the Flemish Education Council (Vlaamse Onderwijsraad, VLOR) set up the study group 'Children with auditory disabilities'. The report recognises the value of VGT, but VLOR doesn't advocate bilingual education 22).

Education in practice

Primary and Secondary Education

Flemish Sign Language is not taught in mainstream schools. There are 7 deaf schools in Flanders, but in most schools Signed or spoken Dutch is still used, therefore the students don't learn VGT structurally 23). In 2003, VGT was added to the official curriculum in deaf education, but only as an optional subject 24). The following information was retrieved from websites of the different deaf schools in 2014 25):

  • Spermalie (primary and secondary education) offers Deaf Culture and VGT as subjects.
  • Sint-Lievenspoort (primary education) offers Deaf Culture and VGT as subjects.
  • Sint-Gregorius (secondary education) uses sign language as instruction language and offers bilingual-bicultural education. VGT and Deaf Culture are taught by a deaf teacher.
  • Koninklijk Instituut Woluwe (primary education) uses spoken Dutch and VGT and mentions Deaf Culture as a common thread.
  • Kasterlinden (primary and secondary education) clearly offers bilingual-bicultural education. Deaf class assistants are role models for the children and hearing teachers. VGT is used as the basis to learn Dutch.
  • Koninklijk Orthopedagogisch Centrum Antwerpen (KOCA, primary and secondary education) aims at giving the deaf child the possibility to integrate in the deaf and hearing society and sees Dutch and VGT as equal languages.
  • KIDS (secondary education) has a similar vision as KOCA.

Both Kasterlinden and Sint-Gregorius use VGT as official language. KIDS and KI Woluwe prepare the children for the hearing as well as the Deaf community, but it is unclear how this is put into practice, since there are no deaf teachers or other role models working at these schools 26).

At the deaf schools, it is not possible to get a diploma. The only way deaf students can get a diploma is by integrating into regular education. Despite the right for a VGT interpreter, attending regular education often leads to social isolation for a deaf student 27).

University and Adult Education

The University of Leuven is the only university that offers a programme on Flemish Sign Language, and is mostly focussed on becoming a VGT interpreter.

There are various VGT courses for adults:

Preservation of the language

Even inside the deaf schools, the use of VGT is limited, due to the lack of qualified deaf teachers. Students do have a peer group to communicate with in VGT, but the student population is decreasing because of the trend towards inclusive education, resulting in more deaf students attending mainstream schools.

Especially the fact that the language was given a name and was officially recognised by the government has added to its prestige. The language having a name affected the perspective of the Flemish Deaf community being a legitimate cultural and linguistic minority 28). The legal recognition had a similar effect and it especially increased the feeling of empowerment of the Deaf community. However, the legal recognition of VGT has not influenced education 29). Since its use in education is very limited, this does not improve the prestige of VGT or the self esteem of its speakers.

Other learning resources

An internet dictionary for VGT-Dutch/Dutch-VGT is freely accessible online since 2004.

From 2012 onward, the daily news broadcast for children and the main Flemish news broadcast are interpreted into VGT 30).

3) , 6) , 7) , 13) , 16) , 24) , 28) , 30)
Van Herreweghe, M., De Meulder, M., Vermeerbergen, M. (2015). From Erasure to Recognition (and Back Again?): The Case of Flemish Sign Language. In M. Marschark & P.E. Spencer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies in Language
8) , 15) , 20) , 21) , 22) , 23) , 27)
De Meulder, M. (2016). Artikel 24 van het VN Verdrag inzake de Rechten van Personen met een Handicap en dove gebarentaligen: naar een nieuwe interpretatie van het begrip 'inclusief onderwijs'. In G. Van Hoven, A. Schippers, M. Cardol & E. De Schauwer (Eds.), Disability Studies in de Lage Landen. Antwerpen: Garant Uitgeverij.
United Nations. Chapter IV Human Rights. Retrieved March 23, 2020 from
Doof Actie Front, Vlaams GebarentaalCentrum vzw, Federatie van Vlaamse DovenOrganisaties vzw (Fevlado). Toelichting erkenning Vlaamse Gebarentaal. Retrieved from
Adviescommissie Vlaamse Gebarentaal. Waarom wordt Vlaamse Gebarentaal erkend en is er een decreet Vlaamse Gebarentaal? . Retrieved from
Van Herreweghe,M. & Vermeerbergen, M. (2009). Flemish Sign Language standardisation. Current Issues in Language Planning, 10(3), 308–326. DOI: 10.1080/14664200903154874.
European Commission. (2017). Belgian schools: bringing equal opportunities to immigrant children. Retrieved from
17) , 18) , 25) , 26)
Kusters, M. (2014). Dove leerkrachten als motor voor verandering? (Master's thesis)
languages/flemish_sign_language_in_belgium.txt · Last modified: 2020/09/08 10:23 by ydwine

Donate Powered by PHP Valid HTML5 Valid CSS Driven by DokuWiki