Sign language ideologies in practice, and why they matter

by E. Mara Green, Annelies Kusters, Erin Moriarty, and Kristin Snoddon

Note: this blog is about the book Sign Language Ideologies in Practice, co-edited by Annelies Kusters, E. Mara Green, Erin Moriarty, and Kristin Snoddon. In this post (video by the four editors and blog by Mara) the (Open Access) introductory chapter, “Sign language ideologies: practices and politics”, is discussed, written by the four editors. Blogs by the individual chapters’ authors will follow.

Some definitions and examples

Language ideologies are ideas, assumptions, and beliefs that people have about language in general, about specific languages, about particular modalities of language, and about ways of communicating. When scholars look at language ideologies in practice, they focus on how people’s actions (what we say and what we do) reflect, reinforce, challenge, and contradict their own and others’ language ideologies. We may, for example, do something because we believe it is the right thing to do; come to hold an idea about something based on our experience of doing that thing; and/or do the opposite of what we say we do.

Some language ideologies are overtly thought or expressed, while other language ideologies may be strongly held but unexpressed, even to ourselves. In the book Sign Language Ideologies in Practice, edited by Annelies Kusters, Erin Moriarty, Kristin Snoddon, and Mara Green, scholars track and analyze both implicit and explicit sign language ideologies through attention to practices in a variety of institutional and cultural settings.

Language ideologies sometimes manifest in clear and dramatic ways. Many people reading this blog will be familiar with the 1880 Milan Conference (Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf), which proposed a ban on the use of signing in deaf children’s education in Western Europe, Canada, the USA, and other countries. The ban perpetuated an ideology that had already profoundly impacted deaf persons’ lives and that continued to do so for generations. It reflected and reproduced assumptions and beliefs about speech, sign, writing, and learning, as well as about what kinds of languages make someone a worthwhile person. 

Language ideologies are confined neither to the past nor to events momentous enough to get included in history books. In the contemporary moment, when deaf and hearing parents make decisions about communicating with and educating their deaf and hearing children, they are influenced in part by language ideologies that they and others hold. Their decisions are also made in accordance with what resources are accessible or available. The presence or absence of such resources varies across time and place and is the product of specific, complex histories, which themselves involve various language ideologies. And parents’ constrained choices further impact children’s experiences, language ideologies, and what becomes available to future generations.

Some clarifications

Sometimes the concept of a “language ideology” may get equated with the concept of a “false belief.” Can a language ideology be, or be rooted in, a false belief? Absolutely. We do not, however, consider the two concepts to be the same, or to do the same analytic work. (The broader relationship of ideology to [false] beliefis beyond the scope of this blog post.)

By taking all statements and beliefs to involve ideologies, we hope to avoid the pitfall of assuming that what “we”think or claim is non-ideological (and thus “true”) while what “other people” think or claim is ideological (and thus “false”). As researchers, the theoretical frameworks within which we work are inherently ideological. An idea that from one perspective is a theory is from another perspective a language ideology, and vice versa. Moreover, local understandings of language, while by definition ideological, are also theoretical.

To be clear, not all statements and thoughts about language are equally valid. Some statements about language(s) are grounded in evidence; others are less so, or not at all. Take the following statement: “Nepali Sign Language has grammatical structure.” This certainly fits the definition of a language ideology as given in the first sentence of this post: “ideas, assumptions, and beliefs that people have about language in general, about specific languages, about particular modalities of language, and about ways of communicating..” While it is ideological, this claim is also supported by linguistic and ethnographic evidence in a way that the counterclaim (that Nepali Sign Language does not have grammatical structure) is not supported.

This matters for intellectual as well as for political reasons. Some language ideologies lead to circumstances in which deaf people struggle (e.g., educational settings where signing is banned); other language ideologies produce settings in which deaf people thrive (e.g., educational settings where signing is prioritized). It is important to be able to identify ideologies, and their effects in the world, in part so that we can work against ideologies that harm people. Indeed, there is a rich tradition of scholarship in Deaf Studies and related fields that has analyzed the consequences for deaf people’s lives of what hearing and deaf people believe about language. We are indebted to this work, whether or not it uses the framework of language ideologies.

Some further examples

The above paragraphs have offered several explicit examples of language ideologies. Implicit ideologies have been present as well. For example, the use of a name, such as Nepali Sign Language (NSL), to refer to a set of communicative practices has ideological underpinnings as well as effects. To fully unpack why this phrase appears in this blog post, it would be necessary to consider a number of questions. Why name a language at all? Why does the name appear here in English rather than in Nepali or another written language? Why do signed language names so often include the word “sign” while spoken language names rarely if ever include the word “spoken”? Why is the nation-state the social/geographical unit that appears in this and many other signed language names? What might this imply about the existence of other signed languages in that nation-state or the use of this signed language elsewhere? We might also ask how this naming creates and constrains political possibilities, such as governmental and non-governmental support for NSL. This example also makes clear how language ideologies take shape within broader contexts, that themselves include ideologies that concern not only language but also national boundaries, citizenship, and belonging, for example.

Another example with which many of the readers of this blog will be familiar is the way in which signers monitor how others sign. Where someone falls in debates about the use of initialized signs (such as FAMILY or CULTURE in American Sign Language, see pictures below) both reflects and reproduces ideas about the relationships between writing, speech, and sign; between English and American Sign Language (in this particular example); to whom languages belong; and other related topics.

Some final thoughts

It is worth repeating that what someone does may or may not be consistent with what they say, because what we express in both our words and actions is context-specific. In Nepal, for example, at times some deaf signers say that they do not support the use of signs that have not been formally approved by a leading deaf organization; at other times, they take pride in their own development of expressive new signs. Both of these positions make sense, even though they may seem to contradict each other. The former reflects how these deaf signers, who are among the older signers of NSL, recognize the importance of shared signs and of understanding the signs that other people use; the latter reflects how these same signers, like younger cohorts, experience language as dynamic and creative.

Indeed, as the editorial team worked on this book, we found ourselves returning again and again to the role of mutual understanding in thinking and writing about sign language ideologies in practice. In a given instance, for example, a person might sign in a particular way that could be described with phrases such as “more English,” “less English,” “more IS,” or “less IS.” Such categorizations are inherently ideological in that what counts as English or IS is not a purely objective question. Additionally, such descriptions may stand in as a shorthand way of evaluating someone’s signing as “more or less understandable” to an observer who avidly wants to understand.

Another interesting observation is that deaf signers might sometimes be less invested in understanding everythinganother person is saying, and more invested in the processof signing together. This was the case, for both deaf and hearing signers, when we four editors conducted a workshop along with a dozen other participants.  We chose to do so through International Sign, without any interpreters. In other contexts, we (or others) might have had different priorities and made different choices. Such priorities are ideological, grounded in and shaping the unfolding moment, reflecting and producing both the ideas we have about our language practices and the practices themselves.


E. Mara Green is assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Barnard College, Columbia University, where she teaches classes in linguistic and sociocultural anthropology. She is currently working on a book manuscript based on her long-term research in Nepal. While not on Twitter, she is happy to be contacted by email at egreen@barnard.edu

Annelies Kusters is associate professor in Sign Language and Intercultural Research at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. She currently leads a deaf research team focusing on intersectionality and translanguaging in the context of international deaf mobilities, called MobileDeaf.

Erin Moriarty is Assistant Professor ASL and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and a Research Fellow at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh with the MobileDeaf project. Her current research project focuses on deaf tourist mobilities and translanguaging in Bali, Indonesia.

Kristin Snoddon is is Associate Professor with the School of Early Childhood Studies, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada. She teaches courses related to early literacy, inclusion, and social justice. Her research interests include inclusive education policy, sign language planning and policy, and critical ethnography.

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