Languages of Europe
Sign languages are an important part of Europe’s multilingual diversity. Based on manual-gestural codes rather than sound, they are as rich as spoken languages in grammatical structures, syntaxes and lexicons. Broadly speaking, each spoken language has a counterpart sign language.
Detailed statistics about the number of sign language users in the European Union are not available, but the Eurobarometer survey carried out in 2001 found that 0.2 percent of respondents knew a sign language. Extrapolated across the EU, this would mean there are around 900,000 sign language users, though these figures should be treated with some caution due to the small size of the sample. Other estimates suggest that one person in a thousand uses a national sign language as a first language, equivalent to around half a million people in the EU. As well as deaf people, for whom a sign language may be their mother tongue, sign language speakers include the hearing impaired, their friends and family, and others who use sign language as a second or third language.
The official status of sign languages varies across the EU. Five countries recognise their national sign language on a constitutional level:
- Austria (recognition achieved in 2005)
- Czech Republic (recognition achieved in 1988)
- Finland (recognition achieved in 1995)
- Portugal (recognition achieved in 1997)
- Slovakia (recognition achieved in 1995)
Other Member States have used other measures and laws to give sign language official status: the French speaking community in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
These measures have the backing of the European Parliament, which adopted a Resolution on sign languages in 1988 (reiterated in 1998). This called on the European Commission and Member States to promote sign language and to ensure deaf people can work and learn in their preferred language. From 1996 to 1997, the Commission supported the Sign Languages Project, a large-scale project to promote the recognition of sign languages, co-ordinated by the European Union of the Deaf (EUD), the European federation representing national deaf associations.