Role of Sign Language in Sweden

During a surprisingly snowless November in the cozy town of Orebro, Sweden, I was visiting a conference for hard-of-hearing young people run by the hard-of-hearing youth organisation Unga Horselskadade. While the conference discussions continued, something struck me – a lot of hard-of-hearing people in Sweden know sign language very well and use it whenever helpful for communication; at a time, they speak very clearly and one wonders at first, why they needed to learn sign language. In many European countries, sign language is used mostly by people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing people who have severe hearing loss. I learned that sign language is a first language for the deaf in Sweden and bilingual education is the norm at schools; but, I still had a lot more surprises ahead.

I saw a very clear distinction between deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Sweden – in terms of separate classes at school, separate organizations (there are nine different organisations for hard-of-hearing or the deaf in Sweden), but I could also observe that both groups can communicate in Sign Language equally well.

Deaf culture is quite strong in Sweden and they do not want to have the sign language forgotten.

In the 1960s and 1970s it was considered important that all Deaf people be taught to speak, but in the 1980s, Sign Language was emphasized. In the 1990s, they decided: “let’s do both Sign Language and speech!”

How did that happen?

In the 1970s, discussions were concentrated on Signed Swedish which was tried in schools. In 1981, Swedish Sign Language came to be recognized as the first language of the deaf in Sweden. From then on, Sweden has had bilingual schools for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, where students learn in Sign language and spoken Swedish.

Swedish Sign Language (SSL) became the language of instruction as well as a subject itself. My Spanish colleague and I were surprised that speech training was not compulsory anymore. In both my native Russia and in Spain, speech development for deaf and hard-of-hearing kids before age 5 is considered crucial. In Sweden, since 1995, special schools and mainstream schools use the same curriculum which includes Sign Language as a subject. They also introduced special syllabuses for the Deaf in Swedish, other languages, and Swedish Sign language. Special schools have movement (instead of music) and drama classes that allow students to develop creativity and communication skills. Finally, since 2002, they’ve used a common syllabus text on Sign Language and Swedish.

Some were concerned that introducing bilingual education and SSL as a first language would prevent good speech development. Even I thought so before, having myself had an early speech training in childhood. Karin Angerby, Vice Principal of the Brigittaskolan for deaf and hard-of-hearing, challenged that conviction: “Some people learn Swedish together with French, and that is seen as wonderful; but, when they hear about learning Sign Language together with a spoken language, they are concerned. Sometimes when I describe how we work in Sweden, it may sound confusing to foreign visitors, but children know how it works and are not confused at all.”

Generally, signs are used widely today among both hard-of-hearing and deaf people as a support to spoken language. At school, signs are used sometimes for hard-of-hearing students to support comprehension, and are always applied in teaching deaf students. Kids learn signs at the same time they learn to speak, so they can be flexible when they communicate with their hearing, hard-of-hearing, and deaf peers.

“Small kids are able to switch from one communication style to another and can even skillfully adapt their Sign Language to different persons with different level of understanding Sign Language,” says Karin. All teachers are responsible for their students’ language development and are aware of the importance of applying both languages in the learning process.

Deaf students at schools study Sign Language along with lessons in written Swedish. Classes of hard-of-hearing students learn Sign Language and spoken and written Swedish. This contributes to good literacy for all Swedish hard-of-hearing and deaf children.

“Deaf children learn grammar at school, and they can compare Sign Language with spoken Swedish, learn more about the grammar and the differences in these languages,” says Karin. “We believe that to learn good Swedish, one needs to learn good Sign Language,” she says. SSL is a shared language in compulsory education and leaves no one out. Sign Language makes communication and teaching instruction more complete, helping to fill in gaps in understanding. Being able to communicate with both hard-of-hearing and deaf people, gaining confidence, and developing identity may help kids to better integrate into hearing society in the future. Kids also have more flexibility in choosing the community they would like to join – deaf, hard-of-hearing, or be in between.

I was pleased to learn that even foreign languages are accessible. In some schools, including Brigittaskolan, students can also choose a second foreign language apart from English. Tobias Palmquist, an English teacher who is hard-of-hearing himself, says: “to a group of hard-of-hearing kids, we teach spoken and written English. Sometimes I help to explain words and expressions with signs; to deaf students, I teach with signs and written English only.”

There is no specific methodology of foreign language learning for deaf or hard-of-hearing students in Sweden, and it is up to the teacher to choose how he or she ensures every student is involved in the process. When I was invited to see Tobias’s English class, his 15-year-old students told me: “Learning how to pronounce English is the most difficult thing. It helps us a lot to read English-language song lyrics, translate them into Swedish, then try to listen to these songs and reproduce the native text.” Some students learn Spanish, and one girl who had moved to Sweden from Iran, also studies Arabic. A right to study native language is provided to pupils with a language and cultural background other than Swedish, so that they can develop a multicultural identity and compare their minority culture with that of Sweden’s deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

Upon graduation in Sweden, deaf and hard-of-hearing students at special schools are expected to:

– be bilingual, able to express ideas in both sign language and written Swedish; and to be
– able to communicate using written English.

This does not interfere with spoken language as special schools offer training in sound and speech stimulation where speech training is tailored to individual needs and choices. This is how “sign bilingual” people can use Sign Language, written language, and spoken language.

Sweden also encourages sign language use among family members. Parents of deaf or hard-of-hearing children have the right to 240 hours of Sign Language instruction at no charge. Furthermore, relatives of deaf and hard-of-hearing children, as well as hearing children of deaf parents are also offered Sign Language instruction free of charge. The State also pays for Sign Language interpreters for a variety of situations, be it a visit to a doctor, meetings at work, or for studies.

80-90% of deaf Swedish kids have Cochlear implants today. And you know that when kids have CIs that their parents are focused on speech development, not sign language. But what happens when a kid with CI goes into a swimming pool? He or she can’t lip-read and cannot sign. Communication is lost. A solution? Bilingual education and learning sign language. In Brigittaskolan, there are some students with CIs, some of whom are already more or less bilingual, while others have one language stronger than the other one. The school takes an individual approach to ensure a balance in the knowledge and use of both languages.

Obviously, Sign bilingualism in Sweden today is a broad concept for all those who need it: deaf children, hard-of-hearing children, children with CIs, and the rest who just want or need to be sign bilingual.

All this made me look at issues of language communication for the deaf and hard-of-hearing from a really new perspective!

In the next article we will discuss Sweden’s high school education system for deaf and hard-of-hearing people and how it works.

Stay tuned!

SOME FACTS ABOUT SWEDEN:

  • Population: 9 million inhabitants
  • Hard-of-hearing population (0-110 years old): 1.08 million
  • Deaf population (according to the Swedish Association of the Deaf, SDR): 8,000 – 10,000. Most deaf and hard-of-hearing are aged 18-65
  • Special schools: Six special schools for the deaf and hard-of-hearing including those with additional disabilities
  • Swedish Sign Language: about 10,000 SSL users. Sweden is the first country to recognize sign language as the first language of the deaf in 1981
  • SSL Interpretation: 400 Sign Language interpreters nationwide.

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