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In January of 2010, our sign-language-assessment survey team did fieldwork in Belfast, Northern Ireland. At a preliminary research level, our primary focus was to investigate the variation of sign language varieties in Northern Ireland compared to Britain and Ireland sign language varieties. We gathered language attitudes among the deaf community in Belfast toward local sign varieties, British Sign Language (BSL), and Irish Sign Language (ISL) through interviews and online questionnaires. We investigated similarity among sign language varieties through wordlist comparisons using the Levenshtein distance metric.
Our results indicate that, although both BSL and ISL are formally recognized as official languages in Northern Ireland, more of the Northern Ireland deaf community identifies with and uses a sign variety that is more similar to BSL than ISL. There may be greater identification with ISL and more similar sign varieties with ISL among deaf people from the western and southern parts of Northern Ireland. Initial results suggest that there is a vibrant local deaf identity; there may be considerable variation between Northern Ireland sign varieties and sign varieties from Britain. In light of this information, we recommend that, prior to distribution in the Northern Ireland deaf community, both BSL and ISL sign language materials be tested for acceptance and that local deaf leadership is consulted in any adaptations of materials that may be needed.