Two Sign Languages Given Official Language Status

South Korea and Papua New Guinea are making provisions for the use of sign language in education and promoting the linguistic identity of the officially-recognized Deaf communities.

South Korea

Members of the South Korean Deaf community had more than just a new year to celebrate on 31 December 2015. On that date the South Korean National Assembly passed legislation to recognize Korean Sign Language as one of Korea’s official languages. Passage of this legislation came as the culmination of more than seven years of advocacy efforts by the Korean Association of the Deaf. In reaching this historic milestone, the Korean Deaf community joins a limited number of Deaf communities around the world who are privileged to have their language nationally recognized.

Like many minority spoken language linguistic groups, Deaf communities tend to be marginalized, without adequate access to education, information or basic services in their language. In some countries sign languages are viewed as collections of simplified gestures rather than fully developed languages. Deaf Koreans take pride in the recognition of their language rights as a minority community, allowing them equal status with hearing Korean citizens. This legislation opens the way for better access and improved communication in education, employment, medical and legal settings, as well as religious and cultural practices. 

The four bills passed in South Korea on 31 December 2015 stipulate government support for sign language research, preservation and development of the language, training for Korean Sign Language interpreters, and provision of an educational environment in which Deaf children are able to learn Korean Sign Language as early as possible. Financial support for these efforts is mandated as well. There are still some hurdles to overcome in the implementation and funding of these policy changes, but Deaf South Koreans are proud that their sign language has been given equal status with spoken Korean, and that their government officially recognizes their right to use the language that best serves them.

The Korean Deaf community continues its ongoing research, language development and training.

Papua New Guinea

The Deaf of Papua New Guinea also received legal recognition of their sign language when it was made the fourth official language of Papua New Guinea in May of 2015. Language development efforts in this Pacific nation are bringing new resources to the Deaf and improvements in education.

Deaf SIL Global Sign Languages Team linguist Nathalie Simonsson Juhonewe and her husband Foreting, a Deaf man from Papua New Guinea, are working with a team of Deaf educators to produce a dictionary of Papua New Guinean Sign Language. To date, they’ve collected over 3,800 signs. In addition, the team is helping to develop sign language books to help hearing parents learn how to communicate with their Deaf children. The team also helps to educate people in various settings about the educational options for the Deaf. A group of Deaf are making plans to begin translating the Bible into Papua New Guinean Sign Language, and anticipate that this official recognition will also make it easier to get funding and support from the government and from churches.

The Deaf community celebrates the government's official recognition of Papua New Guinean Sign Language.

Juhonewe reports that the Deaf of Papua New Guinea felt “very excited and proud” when they learned about their language’s new official status. “They felt that the government removed the stigma of their language,” she notes. “In just half a year since May 2015, the Deaf are no longer ashamed of signing in public. In the past the hearing people would stare and wonder why some people waved their hands, wondering if they were mentally challenged. Now, instead of being ashamed, the Deaf proudly sign in public. Hearing people recognize the Deaf communication and say, ‘Oh, that’s sign language, the newly-recognized official language.’"

Since Papua New Guinea has 840 living languages, Deaf people are thankful that their language has been recognized and embraced by the government as one of the country's four national languages.

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Sign Languages, Ethnologue
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