News and events Tilburg University

Connie de Vos: Recognition for sign language as a result of the corona pandemic

Published: 27th October 2020 Last updated: 06th November 2020

'A surprising positive side-effect of the current pandemic is the sudden spotlight on Sign Language of the Netherlands (Nederlandse Gebarentaal, NGT) since the coronavirus press conferences of the Dutch Cabinet have been made accessible to deaf people through a sign language interpreter,’ says Associate Professor Connie de Vos of TSHD, who specializes in sign language. On October 13, 2020, the Dutch Senate has adopted a law, that had already been unanimously passed by the House of Representatives on September 22, recognizing Sign Language of the Netherlands as one of the Netherlands’ official languages.

‘The fact that much of the Netherlands is now familiar with at least one NGT sign, namely for hoarding, is only a very small step on the road to the emancipation of the Dutch hearing-impaired communities, consisting of 1.7 million people,’ Connie de Vos states. This law had been lobbied for for 30 years and Connie de Vos is the coordinator of a research initiative, From Mime to Sign, as part of which various knowledge institutions and social partners have committed to promoting a wider social application of Sign Language of the Netherlands (ORC initiative in the framework of the Dutch National Research Agenda, NWA).

Cognitive mechanisms and social processes
Connie de Vos is affiliated to the Tilburg Center for Cognition and Communication of the Tilburg School of Humanities & Digital Sciences. She obtained a PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and received, among other things, an NWO Veni grant (2016-2020) and an ERC Starting Grant (2020-2025). Her research focuses on the cognitive mechanisms and social processes as a result of which new sign languages emerge, explaining the genesis of new sign languages.
In her work, she compares the situation of deaf people in the Netherlands with their counterparts in Bali where, in a small village with a high incidence of hereditary deafness, the sign language Kata Kolok emerged. As a result of this local sign language, that is used by both deaf and hearing villagers, in school, in the Hindu temple, and at home, deaf villagers are fully integrated into this community and have opportunities equal to those of hearing community members.

De Vos’ research shows, among other things, that hearing villagers use their experience with non-verbal communication when they learn sign language, but that pointing gestures within the sign language acquire grammatical functions such as pronouns (you, we, etc.). This clearly shows that sign language is not equivalent to mime, but has a linguistic structure, just like, for instance, spoken Dutch.

Broader societal implementation of  Sign Language of the Netherlands
The new law paves the way for increased society-wide accessibility, for example, by means of NGT teaching packages. They can be used in secondary education and in training healthcare professionals, police officers, and lawyers. NGT signs could be introduced, for instance, in daycare centers and care homes to facilitate communication with those who cannot yet or can no longer adequately express themselves verbally.