Sign language and bilingualism

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Finnish Association for the Deaf made its first proposals to education authorities on the teaching of sign language at schools for the deaf. The views on the topic were divided among teachers and the benefits of teaching sign language were questioned. Young deaf people proposed the implementation of a simultaneous method. In this technique, the teacher talked while signing in line with the grammar of the spoken language. The method was a subject of heated debate and deaf people wrote articles about sign language and its grammar and structure for teachers’ magazines. Magazines for deaf people published articles that criticised tuition given in spoken language and stressed the expertise deaf people had in their own matters.

Because the simultaneous method was based on the structure of spoken language, it required everyone to know spoken language. The gradual increase of research data on sign language shed light on the differences between sign language and signed Finnish. This was a small step forward, albeit the main method used was still the oral method with supporting signs.

Among teachers, views on sign language gradually became more favourable. The first sign language course intended for teachers was arranged in 1969 and a half of the schools’ teachers took part.

An important change took place when the municipal schools for the deaf replaced the oral method first with signed Finnish and then with sign language that followed the grammar of spoken language. When research on sign language increased and the awareness movement for deafness in the Nordic countries advocated for the approval of sign language at schools, bilingual tuition became emphasised. Deaf people were members of two linguistic groups, with sign language being the only language they learned naturally and therefore it had to regarded as a deaf person’s first language. Spoken language had to be taught as the second language. These languages served separate purposes and a distinction was made between language skills and speech.

In 1983, the Basic Education Act stated that sign language could be used to support the teaching of pupils who were hard of hearing. While the Finnish Association for the Deaf was not happy with this situation, it was still a step forward. The goal of the curriculum was to give pupils good skills in Finnish and sign language.

In the 1990s, improving the situation of language minorities became of the goals of the education policy. The Finnish Association for the Deaf advocated to have people who use sign language accepted as a linguistic and cultural minority. This approach is based on a socio-cultural view of deaf people, in which deafness is not seen as a deficiency that should be fixed but as a personal characteristic and a feature of a community and culture. In education, pupils’ knowledge of sign language and deaf history, culture and traditions was seen as an important resource.

Teachers also began to speak up more actively for the use of sign language in tuition and campaigned for basic education to open up more opportunities for further studies for deaf students. After finishing basic education, pupils were expected to be bilingual and bicultural. In 1993, sign language was included in the curriculum as a separate subject, and in 1995 it was written into the constitution. A major consequence of the constitutional reform was the establishment of a sign language teacher training programme at the University of Jyväskylä.