Vitality of Flemish Sign Language: an update

It’s been a while since I posted the last update about my current research project here. For those who did not see it (or don’t read Dutch): I’m doing research  on the vitality of Flemish Sign Language (VGT), and how this links to deaf and hearing VGT signers’ multilingual repertoires.

My informants are 15 deaf and hearing people between 18 and 65, all of whom have VGT as one of the languages in their linguistic repertoires. Some of the deaf informants grew up signing, others adopted VGT in their teenage years, while others are in the process of learning VGT. Hearing informants are either parents of deaf children or partners of deaf people. Among the informants are also four couples, either deaf-deaf, deaf-hearing or hearing-hearing (in the case of hearing parents of deaf children).

I use a mixed method approach consisting of language use diaries, language portraits and interviews.

1. Language use diaries

So far, 13 of the 15 informants have returned their language use diary. Actually a better word would be a log(book)  because informants were provided with a format to record their interactions. They were free to choose seven consecutive days in which they would record their daily language use. For each entry, I asked them to write down the time, the language of each encounter or activity, place (at home, at school, online), subject (what they were doing or talking about), the participants in the conversation (if any) and the participants’ hearing status and age. The last column was provided for general comments they might have, for example something they were not sure about or something unusual that happened. I asked them to write down conversations (where other participants were involved), encounters that did not involve an actual conversation (for example ordering a coffee, paying at a counter, recording a WhatsApp video), and “passive” language use (for example reading a book, marking a paper, checking Facebook). I did not give informants any categories to describe their codes. They were also free to provide as little or as much information and could present this in their own words or signs. This gave me insight in their specific language attitudes and ideologies.

So far, I have coded 10 daries, which contain information from 965 different entries. I have to see how many of them I will include in the analysis, but so far the diaries give me a good opportunity to evaluate how, where, how often, and with whom VGT is used, and what other languages informants use (for example International Sign, English, LSFB), where, why, and with whom.

2. Language portraits

Evernote Snapshot 20171018 104639.png

I combine the interviews and language use diaries with language portraits. This is a creative research method in which informants visualize their linguistic repertoire using the outline of a body silhoutte (Busch 2018). I ask them to not only think about specific languages, but also modalities and ways of expressing themselves, both now, in the past, and in the future. Above you can see an example of such a language portrait produced by one of the (deaf) informants. I find it a very useful method because it allows to elicit specific data linked to the emotionally lived experiences of languages and modalities, and to language ideologies and attitudes. Informants also find the method exiting and fun to use and see it as a creative outlet which enables them to talk about their linguistic repertoires in a way the interviews and diaries do not allow. After informants produce their portrait, I ask them to explain it to me and we have a conversation about it (in VGT or in Dutch).

3. Interviews

I have done a first round of interviews with 15 informants, and a second round with most of them. Most interviews were done in VGT, some informants (both deaf and hearing) preferred to express themselves in Dutch. For those interviews, we worked with an interpreter. The interviews (which lasted from 1 hours to 3 hours) covered many different topics: language choice, motivation to use different languages, language learning processes, opportunities to use different languages, self-reported proficiency in different languages, how informants use their linguistic repertoire according to spaces, whether they sign with their children or not and how they feel about that, whether they think their grandchildren will sign, how they would feel if VGT or deaf people would no longer exist, how they see VGT evolve, what they think about the future of VGT and whether they see themselves having a role to play in it, et cetera.

To be continued!

Bush, B. 2018. The language portrait in multilingualism research: Theoretical and methodological considerations. Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies. Paper 236.

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