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The aim of this report is to provide thorough and reliable sociolinguistic information about the deaf community of Portugal by means of a rapid appraisal survey. We targeted the two largest population centers, Lisboa and Porto in October and November of 2011. Our goals included establishing contact with the deaf community in Portugal, measuring language standardization among sign language users, evaluating language vitality, comparing the sign languages used in the cities of Lisboa and Porto, investigating current and potential project opportunities, and comparing the sign languages in Portugal to languages in neighboring countries. Our team consisted of two American researchers who conducted fieldwork over six weeks—four weeks of background research and networking in Spain and two weeks of data collection in Portugal. Three tools were used to achieve our research goals: participant observation, sociolinguistic questionnaires, and wordlist comparison.
Our initial conclusions are that Lingua Gestual Portuguesa (Portuguese Sign Language) is viewed by Portuguese deaf as a single, unique language community. Members of this community recognize some variation within the language, but stress that communication is never difficult. Geography was said to be one cause of this variation, but is not confined to specific cities. Wordlist data suggests that age impacts language variation much more than geography; also, the similarity of wordlists collected from younger participants suggests that the language is becoming more standardized over time; many participants expressed that standardization is favorable. Further study is needed to test intelligibility between various regions, but if the language continues to standardize over time, differences are likely to become less pronounced.
The Portuguese deaf community shows many signs of development and vitality. A strong network of deaf associations and a national federation, full membership in the European Union of the Deaf, and national events and marches all suggest progress and an active deaf population. We are unaware of any large scale language development projects such as national dictionary projects or unified education curricula, but our time spent with the deaf community leads us to believe that they would be open to partnership with projects of this type, given full involvement by the deaf community. All of our tools suggest that the sign varieties in Lisboa and Porto are mutually intelligible. Further study is needed to determine the extensibility of publications in one variety or the other, especially in more rural areas.
Initial research suggests that Portuguese sign language is significantly different from sign languages of surrounding countries; LGP users cited borrowed vocabulary from languages of Greece, Spain, and Sweden, but stated that the similarities are small. Contacts in Spain confirmed that sample data from Portugal shared very little with Spanish sign languages. Our research suggests that Lisboa, as the country’s population center, and identified by our participants as the city with the most services and support for the deaf, would be the ideal location for any large scale language development projects.