Sign language planning and sign language shaming in Norway and Sweden

by Hilde Haualand and Ingela Holmström

Note: this is a blog post about a longer article which is Open Access:
Haualand, H., & Holmström, I. (2019). When language recognition and language shaming go hand in hand – sign language ideologies in Sweden and Norway. Deafness and Education International, 62(2), 1-17.

Sweden has long been regarded as a leading country for recognition of sign language and bilingual education. But upon closer look, one can see that the legislation on deaf people and sign language seems to be stronger in Norway than Sweden. In our study, we examined this legislation and language planning activities in the two countries, and found that, to understand the status of sign languages in both countries, it is not enough to just look at the legislation itself.

We investigated official documents of various kinds (e.g. legal documents, budget propositions, government reports and parliamentary debates), research reports, as well as the respective deaf associations’ periodicals (i.e. Døves Tidsskrift/Dövas Tidning) from the 1970s onwards. In both countries, the deaf associations (and others) carried out language planning activities, i.e. attempts to influence 1) the status of sign language through legislation, 2) the research and documentation of sign language, 3) available opportunities to acquire sign language (i.e. for deaf and hard of hearing children, their parents and teachers) and 4) attitudes towards sign language. In the following, we use these four categories to organize the presentation and discussion of our data. We have also looked at what is not included in the legislation, and different expressions demonstrating that the sign languages are given a lower priority or treated lesser than e.g. spoken Norwegian/Swedish. Such a form of linguistic subordination is called language shaming (Piller 2017).    

Legislation (status planning)

In Sweden, a 1979 government report officially stated for the first time that deaf people were recognized as bilinguals, and that Swedish Sign Language (STS) is their language. This was an indirect recognition that was later included in a budget proposal that the parliament approved in 1981. However, this approval did not mean that STS received legal status. Therefore, in the 1990s, the Swedish deaf association, SDR requested that STS be given status as a minority language. This was rejected however because the government claimed STS was “already recognized” and that STS was an aid which gave deaf people opportunities to communicate “despite their disability”. When Sweden finally adopted a Language Act in 2009, STS was not recognized as a minority language, but as a language “equal to the minority languages”. In Norway, the process was a little different. An indirect recognition of Norwegian Sign Language (NTS) came in 1985 when a government report stated that the research showed that sign languages ​​are natural languages. In 1991, a parliamentary debate proposed that NTS be recognized as a minority language. In 2008, a state report concluded that NTS is one of Norway’s languages, but at the moment of writing this, there is still no general language act that includes NTS.

The only legislation in Sweden, in addition to the Language Act, that mentions STS is the School Act – but only pertaining to the schools for deaf children. Thus, STS has been placed in a context of disability, and as such, children in school settings, other than the deaf schools are not accorded the right to education in and on STS. In Norway, both the Education Act and the Pre-School Act state that children who have NTS as their primary language are entitled to education in and about sign language regardless of school setting. Another related legislation in Sweden is the Health and Medical Care Act, which states that deaf people are entitled to “interpreting service”. This Act does not mention STS at all. Instead, it is the service itself, the “help”, that is highlighted, something that subordinates the language. In the Norwegian Social Insurance Act, on the other hand, NTS is mentioned as a language in connection to interpretation services.

Language documentation (corpus planning)

State-funded research on STS started at Stockholm University in 1972, led by Brita Bergman, and it is still ongoing at the university. Stockholm University also runs a sign language dictionary and has established a corpus for STS. In Norway, early language documentation projects did not receive state funds. Instead, it was individual researchers at different universities who started doing research on NTS. Today, more consolidated research on NTS is still lacking and the one that is conducted is linked to the sign language interpreting programs in Trondheim, Bergen and Oslo. Furthermore, there is no university-based sign language dictionary, but only one that is driven by the special education support system. At the moment of writing, a corpus for NTS is being developed.

Language learning (planning for language acquisition)

There were limited opportunities to learn STS and NTS during the 1970s. In the 1980s, when sign language research had been established and a new curriculum for deaf schools had been implemented, deaf students could receive bilingual education in Swedish and STS in one of the five state-run deaf schools. Today, there are five state-run, bilingual deaf schools where the sign language environment is preserved. In Norway, bilingual education in Norwegian and NTS started in the early/mid-1990s, but today, all state schools for the deaf have been closed down and the students spread to different types of schools. A difference, however, is that deaf learners in Norway have the right to learn NTS in all school settings, while in Sweden this is only offered in the deaf schools. A quandary in Norway, however, is that the deaf student is often the only pupil who learns NTS in the classroom and there are no class or school mates who can communicate in NTS. The requirements for signing proficiency for teachers are also very low – to teach deaf children in NTS in grade 1-7 you only need half a year of full-time studies in NTS (without prior knowledge in the language), and to teach in grade 8-10 you only need a year. However, the situation is not better in Sweden, where the opportunities for teachers to learn STS are limited and many teachers in the deaf schools are employed without knowing STS, so they have to learn STS through instructions offered by the school. In Sweden, parents are only entitled to 240 hours of STS courses, while Norwegian parents are entitled to 40 weeks. In Norway, allowing teachers to teach deaf children NTS after only a short training, and in Sweden, the belief that 240 hours are enough for the parents to be able to become linguistic role models for their children, are examples of language shaming.

General discourse (attitude planning)

Another difference between the countries is how the deaf communities talk about their respective sign languages. In Sweden, pride of and in STS grew stronger after the recognition in 1979/1981, and sign language researchers and the deaf community were close allies. Together, they raised awareness of the status of STS as a language, and the country’s implementation of bilingual education. In Norway, the perception of and attitude to NTS was different and can serve as an example of language shaming. There was a prolonged, personal and deadlocked debate in the periodicals during the 1970s and 1980s on how NTS should be defined, and about the researchers’ responsibility. The editor of the deaf periodical was very critical of both the research and NTS and there was no alliance between researchers and the deaf community as in Sweden. Instead, questions were asked whether the sign language researchers had become deaf enemies, and signed Norwegian remained as an ideal far into the 1980s.

In Sweden, the “Sign Language Day” is celebrated annually, which is not the case in Norway – this is also an example of how the Swedish deaf community had a much more positive view of the country’s sign language than the Norwegian. The first celebration of the STS day took however place ten years after the budget approval in 1981, when the deaf student association at Stockholm University decided to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the approval. At national level, the celebration of the Sign Language Day came to be established in 2006.


Our study concludes with a reflection that it can be the case that deaf people’s dual category status – as both disabled and as belonging to a linguistic minority – means that the sign languages continue to be subordinated in different contexts in favour of the respective country’s spoken languages. When it comes to sign language, perhaps it is precisely the dual status that seems to make linguistic recognition and language shaming go “hand in hand”.


Haualand, H. & I. Holmström (2019): When language recognition and language shaming go hand in hand – sign language ideologies in Sweden and Norway, Deafness & Education International.

Piller, I. (2017). Language shaming: Enacting linguistic subordination, plenary presentation at the 16th International Conference on Minority Languages, Jyväskylä.

Reagan, T. (2010). Language policy and planning for sign languages. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.


Hilde Haualand is Associate Professor at the Department of International studies and Interpreting at Oslo Metropolitan University. Her publications cover topics such as sign language interpreters and professionalism, sign language interpreting services, the politics of video interpreting, and deaf transnational connections. She is co-editor of Tolking – språkarbeid og profesjonsutøvelse (Interpreting – language work and professional practice) (Gyldendal, 2019). She’s on Twitter as @hildemh

Ingela Holmström is Assistant Professor and lecturer at the Department of Linguistics, Stockholm University. Her research focuses on interaction between deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing people both in and outside school contexts. She also conducts research on teaching Swedish Sign Language as a second language for hearing students. She’s on Twitter as @IngelaHolmstrom