Ethnologue’s newest edition reports vitality of sign languages worldwide

Dr. J. Albert Bickford presents a paper on EGIDS modifications at ICLDC 3 with interpretation into American Sign Language.

(March 2013) Through its flagship publication, Ethnologue: Languages of the World, SIL is in the forefront of monitoring the vitality of the world’s languages. The strongest, such as English and Chinese, are used officially by the United Nations. In contrast, many languages are endangered or have gone extinct in the last fifty years. The 17th edition of the Ethnologue, recently released online,* includes estimates of vitality for all known living languages—currently numbered at over seven thousand. The vitality rankings in the Ethnologue are based on the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS), a measure developed specifically for this purpose.

Included in the Ethnologue are more than 130 sign languages which have thus far been identified. Survey is ongoing and SIL researchers estimate that the actual number may exceed four hundred. Some of the sign languages listed in the Ethnologue have strong support from national governments and are used as the medium of instruction for deaf students, suggesting they have the same level of vitality as some spoken languages. Other sign languages are among the many world languages that are threatened or gradually becoming extinct.

Applying EGIDS to the sign languages listed in the Ethnologue brought some challenges to light. Like other language vitality scales before it, EGIDS was originally developed for spoken languages and the wording of its assessment questions made it difficult to apply them to sign languages. Ethnologue editors Dr. M. Paul Lewis and Dr. Gary Simons collaborated on modifications for making EGIDS applicable to sign languages with Dr. J. Albert Bickford of SIL’s Global Sign Languages Team. In March they presented these changes to EGIDS in a paper entitled, "Rating the vitality of sign languages" at the 3rd International Conference on Language Documentation and Conservation (ICLDC 3).**

According to Bickford, “One of the most significant changes is at levels 4 and 5, which now refer more broadly to standardization and institutional support for education rather than literacy, specifically.” The new EGIDS employs more generalized wording such as “used for face-to-face communication” rather than “used orally.” In addition, since most Deaf children learn a sign language from peers and unrelated Deaf adults rather than from their parents, the original wording about transmission of language to children “from their parents” wasn’t helpful for gaining an accurate understanding of the situation. EGIDS now reflects whether children are learning the language without specifying who they are learning it from.

SIL actively supports local Deaf communities in their efforts to strengthen signed languages, advocates for the recognition of sign languages on par with spoken languages and continues to refine assessment methodology and tools to fit the sign language context.

*The print version of the 17th edition of the Ethnologue (edited by Paul Lewis, Charles Fennig and Gary Simons) is scheduled for release by SIL International Publications later this year.

**This year’s ICLDC included another significant sign language-related presentation—a report by a team of researchers from three universities on the first documentation effort for the highly endangered Hawai’i Sign Language, also known as Hawai’i Pidgin Sign Language.

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