LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 45, No. 1 - Spring 1999
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 1999 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
ISSUES IN STANDARDIZING LITHUANIAN SIGN LANGUAGE
As is the case with spoken languages and many other sign languages, Lithuania's sign language of the deaf population has many dialects. Signs differ from one town to the next, from one family to the next. This in itself is not strange or bad. The problem in Lithuania is that there is no standard Lithuanian Sign Language (LtSL). This greatly affects the quality of education which Lithuania's deaf receive and, hence, their employment opportunities and standard of living.
The pedagogical method known as total communication has been used in educating Lithuania's deaf over the past few decades. With this approach, teachers (at least in Lithuania) use spoken language as the basis for communication and use signs to support or accent what they are saying. This method of education is tied closely to lip-reading.
During the past few decades research has shown that sign languages have all the features of spoken languages and that they are processed in a similar manner (Klima & Bellugi, 1979). These findings caused educators in the United States and other Western countries to rethink their deaf education policies. Bilingual education has come to be accepted as an effective way to educate the deaf (Ahlgren & Hyltenstam, 1994). With this method, the native sign language of a deaf individual is used as the primary means of instruction. Theoretical foundations are laid in sign language, normal cognitive development is maintained by the native sign language, and, eventually, sign language is used to achieve proficiency in the written and spoken language of the deaf individual's home country.
Leaders in deaf education in Lithuania are not ignorant of these methods. On the contrary, teachers working in schools for the deaf are very much aware of the new findings and frequently express a strong desire to join the West in using a bilingual approach to educate their students. The Director of the Vilnius School for the Deaf is quite frustrated that the school is thwarted in its efforts to use the bilingual approach primarily because Lithuania does not yet have a standard LtSL.
Likewise, the leaders of Lithuania's deaf community also recognize this problem. The Lithuanian Deaf Association has begun a project to alleviate the situation and standardize LtSL. Unfortunately, the work completed to date has significant flaws from the perspective of a linguist.
Ideally, a descriptive approach to analyzing the language should be used. It is important to describe what is already a part of the language and not to construct what ought to be part of the language being analyzed. A number of linguists should be employed to document the different dialects of all the major Lithuanian deaf communities. Any lexemes or syntactic constructions found common to all the dialects should be ascribed to standard LtSL. Differences between dialects should be outlined and presented to the deaf community for them to decide what should be part of the standard language. If there is a very large difference between all dialects, one dialect might be chosen as the basis for LtSL, and features of the other dialects could be incorporated as needed.
Apart from minimal research done by M. Danielius, a linguist employed by the Lithuanian Deaf Association, and D. Kupčinskas, a 1997-98 Fullbright fellow, this is not the manner in which work on standardizing LtSL has proceeded.
In reality, the individuals in charge of this project at the Lithuanian Deaf Association (i.e. the ones with the funding from Lithuania's government at their discretion) are not linguists. These individuals have a prescriptive outlook on language. The people with decision-making power are in effect creating their own version of a sign language. At times, they disregard existing signs in favor of a newly invented sign which, the standardizers believe, makes more sense. If a sign is thought to be aesthetically displeasing, it is changed or made to be more "graceful." These are hardly accepted practices in linguistic analysis. If confronted, these individuals, who are either deaf or related to deaf persons, claim that a regular hearing linguist will never be able to understand this language truly. (There is no need to go into depth on what is faulty in this reasoning.)
This is not to say that the deaf or those close to the deaf should be excluded from standardizing their own language. Rather, the non-linguists currently making the decisions about the standardization of LtSL should realize that this is a matter of language analysis, policy, and planning, where the help of a linguist is necessary and, in fact, crucial.
The problems standardizing LtSL can be helped along in a few ways. First, the linguists of Lithuania must be engaged to address the issue. Because of the nature of the Lithuanian language, most linguists in Lithuania work with historical or comparative linguistics. Thus far, universities have put most of their resources into historical, diachronic linguistics. Anything approaching applied linguistics, psycho linguistics, or socio-linguistics is disregarded by those with funding at their disposal. Despite these circumstances, Lithuania's linguists are completely capable of working on this task if only they would be convinced of the importance of their role in this matter. In addition, the funding, which ultimately comes from the Lithuanian government, should be expeditiously redirected to the people most able to standardize LtSL, linguists working closely with the deaf community.
This issue of standardizing LtSL has many problems facing it ranging from ignorance to petty personal conflicts to finances. Hopefully, these problems will be resolved as soon as possible so that Lithuania's deaf will be able to receive a more effective education and live a more fulfilling life.
Ahlgren, I. & Hyltenstam, K. (eds.) (1994). Bilingualism in Deaf Education. Hamburg: Signum. From International Studies on Sign Language and Communication of the Deaf edited by Siegmund Prillwitz on behalf of the Society and the Center for German Sign Language and Communication of the Deaf. University of Hamburg. Volume 27.
Klima, E., & Bellugi, U. (1979). Signs of Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.
* A 1997 Fullbright fellow, currently working in Vilnius, Lithuania, on the problem of standardizing Lithuanian Sign language.