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Vlaanderen | Gebaren | Taal 1)
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).
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).
There are 6,000 native speakers of Flemish Sign Language worldwide 5).
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).
Flemish Sign Language is not protected by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, since it was (and still is) thought that sign languages are artificial instead of natural languages, that they don't have a long historical background and aren't different from the official language of the state. The Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities is the first international human rights convention that explicitly considers sign languages to be languages 8).
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 was founded, which had as its main aim the recognition of VGT. A petition was started, which was submitted to the Flemish Parliament in 2005. On April 26, 2006, the decree regarding the recognition of the Flemish Sign Language (decreet houdende de erkenning van de Vlaamse Gebarentaal) was adopted by the Flemish Parliament. The election of the first deaf MP 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 Gebarentaal, 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 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 9).
Belgium has the most segregated education system in Europe. 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 10).
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 11). However, there are not enough learning materials and methods for the subjects VGT and Deaf Culture 12).
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 13).
The lack of qualified deaf teachers is thus a great difficulty, and often hearing teachers don't have adequate language skills in VGT 14). 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 15).
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 18). In 2003, VGT was added to the official curriculum in deaf education, but only as an optional subject 19). The following information was retrieved from websites of the different deaf schools in 2014 20):
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 21).
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 22).
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:
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 23). 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 24). Since its use in education is very limited, this does not improve the prestige of VGT or the self esteem of its speakers.
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 25).
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