A few words about a conference that took place in Budapest, Hungary on 25/26 March to which I was an invited speaker, entitled: ‘Multilingualism in Europe: prospects and practices in East-Central Europe’.
Detailed conference information can be found here
There is an explanation of the conference in International Sign via You-tube here
It was specifically a conference on multilingualism, with the focus on the minority or lesser used languages in East-Central Europe.
And what an amazing spectacle it was!
The majority of the presentations were papers on the realities of making minority languages inclusive across east-central states where majority languages such as German, English, French, etc, dominate. Many papers were given on specific experiences of language minorities such as Slovakian, Ukrainian, or Lithuanian for example, but there were three strands in particular that stood out: the Hungarian situation (particularly where Hungarian is a minority language, in Romania, for example), the situation of Roma people, and, of course, sign language people.
The local Hungarian Deaf people were present and involved, putting on poetry, and theatre for the main audience. The sessions on sign language involved scholars, Deaf and hearing, from Hungary, Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Finland and the UK, amongst others. There were interpreters in Hungaran Sign Language, British Sign Language and International Sign.
Now, this is not the first time scholars from sign language studies or Deaf studies have been present at or presented at conferences on minority language minority issues. My experience of attending these conferences is that the sessions on sign language tend to be poorly attended, sometimes it’s only the plenary speakers who actually attend (!), but here every one of the 60 or so seats were taken, and people had to stand at the back and many couldn’t get into the room. There was a genuine interest in sign language issues amongst delegates.
Many of the questions after the sessions were directed at the speaker from Holland, Trude Schermer, where the government have insisted on standardisation of the language in that nation.
The keynote speakers of the sign language session, Ádám Kósa (the sole Deaf Member of the European Parliament) and Mark Wheatley (Executive Director of the European Union of the Deaf), discussed the various sign language recognition acts across Europe, and outlined the plans for European wide action that were agreed by all 23 Deaf Associations in Europe at the European Parliament meeting in November 2010. Much of this was focused on making use of European Disability legislation, particularly in the area of employment, where the European Parliament has a 10-year plan (2010-2020).
There was nothing wrong with this focus, but I do think it might have puzzled some delegates as to why there was a heavy plan of action in the area of ‘disability’ legislation when there was such a strong emphasis on sign languages as minority languages in Europe alongside the lesser used and minority spoken languages across Europe.
Many of the presentations also came across as a promotion of their service or organisation, as opposed to, for example, addressing pressing issues of how sign language people might press ahead and become included within the many charters on European minority language recognition.
Not that the spoken languages are having that much luck with these either: and therefore, we can begin to see some common cause with language minority groups, especially, in my view, Roma people.
None of these criticisms are meant to take away the fantastic achievements of Ádám Kósa, the Hungarian Deaf Association, and the organisers of the conference, and what they have achieved. My understanding is that one of the (hearing) organisers of the conference has been trying to set this up for 25 years! Dream realised!
What I think they have, in fact, done is laid down a challenge to Deaf people everywhere, and shown what is possible with a bit of focused action, support from some real allies, and a bit of funding, if people find the political will to go for what they believe (as opposed to endlessly complaining about where they ought to be or not to be).
The organisers have thanked me endlessly for accepting the invitation to attend, but I feel far more grateful that I had the opportunity to be part of such an important conference and occasion.
Finally…sitting in my hotel room doing nothing in particular, I had the t.v. on the Hungarian Parliament Channel – I left it on there because the whole thing was being sign language interpreted live – not that I could understand it all, so I pottered about with my papers. SuddenlyÁdám Kósa appeared and made a contribution to the debate, so I sat and watched as he made his points, with the other Hungarian Deaf MP, Gergely Tapolczai (they have two in the Parliament!) sitting by his side. I have seen Ádám present before, so the whole situation felt very real, but also suddenly unreal.
At the conference I remarked on this, and Gergely explained to me he had earlier signed in Hungarian Sign Language and asked the interpreters not to do the voice over so the MP’s could watch him and see how it felt.
Somehow it feels like I will never see the day when I switch on Freeview Channel 81 and see Deaf MP’s signing away – I don’t particularly wish to become an MP, but those who do, should take heart from this conference. And Deaf people everywhere, if you feel so strongly about being a minority group you can take great inspiration from the example of Hungary, and make it happen in your own nation, region or indeed, the world.