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Development of signed Russian and Russian sign language

Vlad Kolesnikov—sign language teacher, speech pathologist, Russian Sign Language translator

Anna Komarova—linguist, RSL translator,
Director of the G.L. Zaitseva Centre for the Education of Deaf People and Sign Language

Sign language is an independent language of communication for deaf and hard-of-hearing people that consists of hand gestures combined with facial expressions, lip movements, and body position. A separate sign language component is dactylology, or fingerspelling (the “hand alphabet”), where each finger symbol represents the letter of a national alphabet. Dactylology borrows from a national verbal language and is used to refer to proper names, specific terms, and so on in order to clarify the meaning of a gesture—i.e., in cases where one needs to visually spell a word. Sign language has its own linguistic structure, different from the structure of verbal language. Sign language is often mistakenly identified with sign-supported language (SSL): the transmission of verbal speech through artificial gestures or gestures borrowed from sign language that nevertheless preserves the linguistic structure of verbal language.

There are various types of signed communication between deaf and hearing people. One generalization would be to call the national sign language and SSL (the visual form of the national verbal language) two poles, between which exist various forms of sign communication and variants of pidgin (simplified) or mixed languages.

Currently, Russian Sign Language (RSL) is recognized in Russia as a full-fledged language of the Deaf at the legislative level. However, it is still impossible to say that the Deaf, as is the case for any legitimate sociolinguistic minority, can sufficiently participate in society, fully access information, receive education on an equal basis with hearing people, successfully find employment or be economically independent.

The situation surrounding deaf and hard-of-hearing people is complicated by the fact that they are often considered “behind the curve.” For the majority of deaf people, the national verbal language is a second language, and not everyone can master it in its oral form. Uninformed listeners may perceive the deaf as “second-class citizens” or people with intellectual disabilities. This attitude towards deaf adults, combined with the diminished expectations of deaf children from special education teachers and the general ignorance of sign language, are the reasons behind shortcomings in both the educational system and the realm of support services. Deaf people’s use of sign language designates them as a linguistic minority, with their own cultural and group rights (just as is the case for any other linguistic minority).

Sign languages are national, and the number of sign languages is completely independent of the number of spoken languages in a given country or region. The 2005 edition of the Encyclopaedia of Languages mentions at least 121 national sign languages, but modern linguists believe that there are significantly more in use. For example, deaf people throughout Russia use Russian Sign Language (at one time, the name “Russian National Sign Language” was considered); in the United States, American Sign Language is used, while the United Kingdom uses British Sign Language. The difference between the sign languages of the UK and the US is very characteristic and proves the independence of signed languages from their verbal counterparts: the verbal languages of the two countries are practically identical, while their respective sign languages vary.

Galina Zaitseva was a researcher of the sign language, culture, and history of the Deaf who, in 1969, defended the country’s first PhD thesis on the sign language of the Deaf. She authored the book Zhestovaya rech. Daktilologiya [Sign Language: Dactylology] and many other publications related to the study of sign language and the determination of its meaning in the lives of the Deaf, most of which were included in her posthumous collection Zhest i slovo [The Gesture and The Word]. Zaitseva claimed that sign language’s status is equal to that of any other language. She defended the notion of bilingual teaching in schools for the deaf, where Russian Sign Language serves as the language of instruction alongside spoken Russian. She pointed out that Spanish priest Juan Pablo Bonet made the first attempt to use dactyl and gestures in the teaching of the Deaf in the early seventeenth century. In 1620, he suggested using oral, written, dactylic, and sign communications in teaching the Deaf in his book, Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos [Reduction of the Letters of the Alphabet and Method of Teaching Deaf-Mutes to Speak]. At the same time, while introducing the Deaf to language, Bonet used natural gestures (meaning simple figurative and pointing gestures that are understandable without translation: “eat,” “sleep,” “go” and “home,” for example) and demonstrated actions with objects, while other gestures (later termed conditional) were introduced only at the stage when they learned to read, when he began to introduce the grammar of the verbal language.

In 1760, the Abbé Charles-Michel de l'Épée in France was one of the first people in the history of sign language teaching to systematically teach deaf children. Before that, the Deaf were mostly taught individually or in small groups by tutors hired by wealthy families. Some teachers used dactyl alphabets for teaching; others, like the Spaniard Pedro Ponce de León, used both dactyl and the gestures of the Deaf themselves to visualize the spoken language. Still, the main task in many cases was to teach oral speech.

The Abbé de l’Épée quickly noticed that the deaf people whom he taught used gestures to communicate with each other. The longer he observed the communication of the Deaf, the more convinced he became that gestures were not merely primitive pantomimes designed to imitate words (as many thought at the time), but a “language of signs.” de l’Épée realized that in order to teach verbal language to the Deaf successfully, a teacher would need to master sign language themselves. This was a fundamentally new approach, later called the mimic method of teaching the Deaf. The main task of de l'Épée was not simply to train the Deaf in verbal speech, but to give them the same quality of education and upbringing as hearing people. His teaching used the principle of translation: while reading, children would pick out gestures for each word. General education subjects were taught in sign language, and the materials studied were repeated in the reading process.

de l'Épée also noted that sign language was not similar in structure to verbal language and that translation was very difficult, primarily because sign language has grammatical meanings that differed from verbal French: for example, sign language lacks most cases, as well as gender. As a result, the Abbé and his followers developed so-called “methodical gestures” as a means of teaching deaf children the grammar of the French language. The Abbé de l’Épée believed that the tools of natural sign language were not sufficient to teach verbal language or certain other subjects. If sign language lacked a suitable gesture, de l’Épée borrowed or invented it; however, insofar as such artificial gestures violated the very nature of sign language and were hard for children to understand, his students did not use them in informal settings amongst themselves. Those deaf students who found their circles of communication within de l’Épée’s school stimulated the development of sign language, which gradually formed an independent linguistic system with special and expressive means of communicating not only grammatical meaning but other functional elements of a language as well.

The Abbé de l’Épée died in 1789 and did not live to see his brainchild become the Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets [the National Institute for the Deaf and Mute]. His work was continued by the Abbé Sicard, who had studied for several years under de l'Épée. Some of Sicard’s teaching methods raise questions, but this is a topic for a separate article. Many bibliographers nevertheless agree that Sicard completed de l'Épée’s work on a gestural dictionary. This dictionary, called Théorie des signes pour l’instruction des sourds-muets [A theory on signs for the instruction of deaf-mutes, 1808), was a two-volume book that listed French words grouped by topic alongside their translations into methodical gestures.

Another approach to teaching the Deaf was developed almost simultaneously with the mimic method. The oral method of teaching, based on the idealist philosophy of Kant and Hegel, became widespread with the opening of a school for deaf children in Leipzig by Samuel Heinicke in 1778. The ideal form—namely, oral speech—became the primary goal of training. We now know of extensive correspondence between de l’Épée and Heinicke, in which each of the teachers of the Deaf attempted to prove the benefits of their unique approaches to learning.

In 1880, at the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf in Milan, it was decided that the oral method of teaching was more effective than teaching in sign language, resulting in a ban of the latter. Only two countries opposed the decision: The United States and the United Kingdom. The Congress’ resolutions stated that “considering the incontestable superiority of speech over signs in restoring the deaf-mute to society, and in giving him a more perfect knowledge of language, [it] declares that the Oral method ought to be preferred that of signs for the education and instruction of the deaf and dumb’, and ‘the simultaneous use of articulation and signs has the disadvantage of injuring articulation and lip-reading.” The further development of sign language was put at risk: it fell out of use even as an auxiliary means of education almost everywhere, and it was not welcomed as a means of communication used by the Deaf. A purely oral method, targeted at the development of speech (continued after World War II with the development of technical tools and the use of remaining hearing), took the fore. Its goal was to force deaf people to “make sound,” bringing them as close as possible to the hearing majority.

The first studies of Russian Sign Language were conducted by Victor Ivanovich Fleury, director of the Saint Petersburg School for the Deaf, where teaching was based on de l'Épée’s method. One of Fleury’s main works is Glukhonemye [Deafmutes, 1835], which analyzes the communication of the Deaf. Fleury assigns sign language a significant role in the education and upbringing of deaf students. The book also includes the first descriptive dictionary of RSL and includes chapters on sign translation. At various stages of training, Fleury used oral, written, and dactyl speech, as well as sign language tools (“natural and organic pantomime”). The characteristics and teaching principles set out by Fleury are still relevant today.

In 1860, the deaf artist Ivan Arnold opened a school for the Deaf in Moscow, which also initially used sign language. However, following the trend in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, sign language was considered in Russia to be an obstacle to the formation of speech—and as a result, deaf teachers were dismissed from schools everywhere.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Nikolai Mikhailovich Lagovsky, a sign language teacher and professor who analyzed the sign communication of the Deaf (unlike Fleury), concluded that sign language lacked grammar. However, Lagovsky stressed that this did not necessarily negate sign language’s use as an auxiliary tool in education.

Sergei Sokolov, one of the founders of the Association of the Deaf, said in a speech at the first All-Russian Congress of the Deaf (1917), where the second day’s agenda included “the question of the need for facial expressions”: “...mimicry is a special language with its own phrases, sometimes not translated into ordinary speech.” Still, the Congress adopted a paradoxical resolution: it recognized the right of the deaf to use facial expressions on equal footing with other methods of communication (oral speech and dactylology), but only in their “own environment”—that is, among other deaf people, as facial expressions were the only convenient language for communicating with people like them. “In school, any kind of facial expression is universally unacceptable, and when teaching deaf-mute children, only oral speech and dactylology should be employed: the former for students who are able to study oral speech, and the latter for those who are deprived of this ability.”

At the same time, there have always been supporters of sign language: not merely the Deaf themselves, who were deprived of the right to a voice of their own for almost 100 years, but also prominent scientists. An important role in forming a positive attitude to sign language belongs to Lev Vygotsky, who in the early 1930s concluded that sign language is a complex linguistic system, “true speech in all its functional richness”—not only a means of interpersonal communication for the Deaf but also “a means of internal thinking for the child himself.”

Prominent Soviet sign language teachers Rakhil Markovna Boskis and Natalia Grigoryevna Morozova developed Vygotsky’s ideas further. They were the first in Russia to conduct experimental studies of sign language. In their work O razvitii mimicheskoy rechi [On the development of mimic speech, 1939], Boskis and Morozova concluded that sign language has its own grammar, different from that of spoken Russian. But they also suggested that the Deaf cannot speak two languages (i.e., become bilingual): as they master a spoken language, sign language would transform into sign-supported language.

Soviet speech pathologist Ivan Afanasyevich Sokolyansky, who worked with the Deaf and the Deaf-Blind, spoke about the need to use sign language in education, placing a particular emphasis on its importance in early stages. Sokolyansky was one of the first to call sign language the “native language” of the Deaf and noticed that deaf people were like foreigners among the hearing.

In the first third of the twentieth century in Russia, the oral teaching method prevailed, as was the case in many other countries. However, due to the significant migration of deaf people from villages to major cities, the rise of urban communities of the Deaf, and the need to transmit the basics of knowledge to them in a short time period, many evening schools, vocational schools, and literacy courses began to open. Obviously, it would have been impossible to solve such social problems without the use of sign language. Therefore, in 1938, at the All-Russian Meeting of Sign Language Teachers, the “purely oral method” was deemed unacceptable. Now both deaf teachers and hearing teachers with sign language skills were allowed to return to work. However, the very beginning of the 1950s saw was another setback: the publication of Joseph Stalin’s work Marksizm i voprosy yazykoznaniya [Marxism and Problems of Linguistics], which featured, among other things, the following statement: “Whatever thoughts arise in a person’s head and whenever they arise, they may arise and exist only on the basis of linguistic material, of linguistic terms and phrases. There are no naked thoughts free from the ‘natural matter’ of language.”. Stalin argued that sign language “is not actually a language or even a substitute for language.” Although Joseph Stalin was by no means an expert in the teaching or education of the deaf, the entire Soviet speech pathology field once again began to espouse the purely oral method after this publication: the Deaf must speak. Many doctors and teachers considered the Deaf to be defective deviations from the norm. Sign language as a means of interpersonal communication was also perceived in an extremely negative light: it was banned in educational institutions even outside of class time and likened to “monkey language.” Unfortunately, echoes of such discriminatory attitudes towards the Deaf and their language persist, and the prejudice that sign language hinders verbal mastery is very common among teachers and specialists at various levels—even among hearing parents.

Around the world, the rejection of the oral approach to teaching deaf children is in many ways associated with a change in the status of national sign languages. But in the pedagogy of schools for the Deaf in the last third of the twentieth century, the so-called total communication method, which was most common and popular in the United States, dominated. The emergence of total communication is tied to a number of reasons: primarily the desire to improve the quality of education and return to the “golden days” of sign language teaching by people like Pedro Ponce de Leon, de l'Épée, and Carl Malm. Total Communication can be considered a kind of compromise between the proponents of oral and mimic methods. Its guiding principle is that “all tools are good tools.” However, instead of the true sign language of the Deaf, sign-supported language is used. Total Communication has been subject to serious critique: the speed of speech and pronunciation using sign language are not identical; teachers simplified the speech component of their messages or skipped important information in the process of transmitting information35 (native sign language speakers were rarely involved in the teaching process), and sounds of speech in parallel with elements of sign language would only be comprehensible to those who had mastered both verbal language and lip-reading. As a result, the message remained incomplete in both speech and gestural modes. Hearing teachers and deaf children had completely different assessments of the learning situation: the former believed that they were well-versed in gestures and that their stories in sign-supported language were easy to understand, while the latter noted that they understood only isolated gestures made by their teachers.

Disappointment in the results of Total Communication-based teaching, as well as a series of other factors led to the appearance and spread of bilingual teaching. The spread of information about the low literacy levels of deaf children delivered a widespread shock. Richard Conrad’s research, one of the cornerstones in the field of literacy and education of deaf children, found that deaf people with average intellectual indicators were graduating from school with the reading skills of 8- or 9-year-old hearing children.

With regard to deaf people, the term “bilingualism” began to see widespread use in the 1980s. Indeed, the majority of deaf people have a command of both the sign and verbal language of their native country. For some, the primary language is sign language, while others prefer verbal; most importantly, deaf people can use either language depending on the communication situation. The bilingual approach to deaf education involves the use of two equal and equivalent educational processes in the national verbal and national sign languages. Both languages are “equal partners” in communication between deaf and hearing people, including their teachers, fellow students, and parents. A number of factors contributed to the development of this direction. First, there was fundamental scientific research into national sign languages, including works by William Stoke (USA), Mary Brennan (UK), and Galina Zaitseva (Russia), which proved that sign languages are complex and rich linguistic systems with their own unique grammar, vocabulary, morphology, syntax, and phonology. A second factor was the increase in migration into Europe and the United States: an influx of migrants from Africa and Asia required a solution for second language teaching. Third, society's attitude towards those who are “not like everyone else” has changed. The acceptance of otherness and a general shift in the sociocultural approach to the Deaf and deafness, in general, have also contributed to the development of bilingualism. Bilingual education for the Deaf and the use of authentic sign languages are currently widespread in many countries around the world, both in special schools (in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Scandinavian countries) and in inclusive education (in Iceland, Hong Kong, and the United Kingdom). In some countries, the introduction of bilingual education coincided with a change in attitudes towards sign language itself, as it was recognized at the legislative level.

In the Scandinavian countries, sign languages are being perceived as a linguistic foundation and basis for teaching deaf children for the first time in the current stage of deaf education development. As noted by researcher Kerstin Heiling, secondary schools in Sweden are not considered optimal for teaching deaf children. Instead, the policy of bilingual education in special schools persists, in which Swedish Sign Language is considered to be a child's first language, while written and later spoken Swedish are secondary.

Bilingual education for the Deaf in Russia is inextricably linked with Galina Zaitseva, the principal inspiration and ideologist of this educational institution beginning with the opening of a bilingual gymnasium in 1992 within Moscow's School No. 65 until her death in 2005. The material and results of her educational work are described in Zaitseva's book The Gesture and The Word, as well as in the collection Deaf Children and Bilingual Education. Unfortunately, after Galina Zaitseva's passing, bilingual education for the Deaf did not become widespread in Russia.

Today, many countries are moving towards inclusive education, which means that the Deaf are taught in general education schools, and this requires that sign language teachers or other specialists support students in such schools. As noted above, inclusive forms of education should in no way exclude the use of sign language at various stages of learning. However, the preservation and development of sign language and communication in it is extremely difficult at the individual level of inclusion (one or two deaf children per school). Sign language plays a more significant role and acts in a completely different capacity when groups of deaf people (one or more classes) study within a school.

For example, Harry Knoors noted that in the Netherlands, hard-of-hearing children mostly attend general education schools, while deaf children attend special schools for the Deaf. An intermediate option is to teach deaf and hard-of-hearing children in small dedicated departments within general education schools, but in such institutions, the role of sign language as a child's first language is usually reduced.

Currently, the following tendencies in the education of deaf children can be noted around the world: 

  1. Preservation of special schools for the deaf, including both day and boarding schools: many of them use either Total Communication or a bilingual approach, national sign language is used as a tool and subject for study, and deaf teachers are employed.
  2. In Europe and the United States, in addition to maintaining special schools that educate deaf children with additional challenges and deaf children from migrant families, priority is given to a tailor-made approach, where teachers try to account for the deaf child's psychological and pedagogical nuances in creating a personalized program for them.
    Unfortunately, hearing parents of young deaf children are not always able to make the correct choice regarding the development of their deaf child; still, teachers and psychologists are required to tell parents about sign language's role in the further development of a deaf child. Inclusive education exists in many forms, ranging from partial to full inclusion and from one-on-one teaching to special groups and classes.
  3. The widespread use of cochlear implants—which has nevertheless not led to widespread education of children with implants in general education schools. Psychologists and many educators recommend the teaching and use of sign language from an early age, even for children with cochlear implants.

In some countries, sign languages are considered “tools” for specialized training. Sometimes they can only be used in communication with children and adults with developmental disabilities. Although the inclusion of sign languages in the educational process varies across the European Union, the EU considers sign languages to be completely independent at the “general” level. For example, the European Parliament issued two resolutions on the status of sign languages (in 1988 and 1998). The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) issued a resolution in 2003 calling for the protection of sign languages in EU countries.44 The role of sign languages in education was established by UNESCO's Salamanca Statement (1994). The standard rules on equalizing opportunities for persons with disabilities, adopted by the United Nations in the 1990s, clearly state the need for access to information and communication. This also applies to the role of sign languages in education.

Thanks to the aforementioned documents, some states have recognized sign languages at the legislative level within their borders: in some countries, sign language is recognized at the constitutional level; in others, through other legal acts. In the majority of states, the introduction of bilingual education coincided with societal changes in the attitude toward sign language and its recognition as an equal language.

On December 30, 2012, Russian Sign Language received official status: if earlier it was recognized only as a language of “interpersonal communication,” now it is “the language of communication in the presence of hearing and/or speech disorders, including in the areas where the verbal state language of the Russian Federation is used.” This means, for example, that if a deaf or hard-of-hearing person needs to interact with state, municipal or judicial authorities, they have the right to an interpreter. Recognition of sign language should help improve the quality of life for the deaf, although the history of sign language development shows that time must pass between nominal recognition of its status and real state support. However, the objectives set at the general legislative policy level regarding sign languages and the actual situation in deaf education are still very far separated.

Excluding sign languages from the learning process contradicts the recognition of national sign languages as the first or preferred languages for the deaf; it ignores the fact that access to a child's first language paves the way for further successful cognitive development and bilingualism. The stigmatization of sign languages in deaf teaching excludes the direct experience of deaf adults, which should be taken into account in shaping future sign language policies. The central role of sign languages in deaf education in the twenty-first century should not be questioned if we are serious about the right of the deaf to participate fully in society.

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