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Sign language of the Netherlands (SLN) and deaf culture.


In this article, we give an impression of the development of Deaf culture as a subject taught to student-teachers and student-interpreters of Sign Language of the Netherlands (SLN). One specific problem for students of any sign language is that there is no "deaf country" where they can encounter the language in a natural way and come into contact with the culture in which that language is embedded. By force of this fact, we developed various courses in Deaf culture linked to practical assignments that encourage students to go forth into the Deaf community and link the theoretical knowledge taught in our classes with their own experiences among the Deaf.


A new professional training program was created in the Netherlands with the aim of training teachers and interpreters in Sign Language of the Netherlands (SLN). This is a four-year program in which the students, who usually have zero knowledge of SLN when they begin their training, are taught the language as well as the tools of their future trade. This means that the student-teachers are taught the structural didactics of SLN and the professional knowledge they need to become language teachers. The student-interpreters are taught SLN, Dutch, and interpreting skills and the professional knowledge they need to become interpreters. These three major aspects of the program (language, didactics/interpreting and professional skills) are supported by knowledge of Deaf culture (1).

Contrary to learners of any given spoken language, sign language students cannot benefit from visits to even one country where this language is used, since there is no such thing as a "deaf country". They cannot meet native signers or encounter the culture in which the language is used in a natural way. This unique situation distinguishes the teaching and learning of Sign language from that of other languages. Since learning a language implies also learning the pragmatic rules and the cultural contexts belonging to that language, this obviously poses a major difficulty for sign language students all over the world, whatever sign language they are studying. A second 'problem' is that in the hearing world there is little knowledge on the specific communication problems that the deaf encounter from birth on (e.g., Van den Bogaerde 2000). Deafness is sometimes called 'the invisible handicap' because you cannot see it in a person. Since most deaf people have incomplete knowledge of the spoken language of the hearing majority, their speech is often incomprehensible to hearing people. This fact, amongst others, has contributed to the view that deaf people are backward, ignorant or socially not adapted. Many hearing students just starting their studies share these biases and they need to be re-educated on these issues. Not only for their own professional performance, but also because as professionals they will encounter many hearing people who share these views and they have to learn how to deal with these attitudes.

During this four-year program, the students are encouraged to enter the deaf community and become an accepted guest or member who is a future professional. In addition, our deaf teachers also teach students explicitly about Deaf culture in the curriculum. The Deaf culture courses had to be newly developed by us, since hardly any literature exists on the Deaf community in the Netherlands, and no material was available (2). Our Deaf culture courses have been taught now for five years and are constantly revised. In this article, we will briefly describe the four-year program for Deaf culture.

Deaf Culture

Deaf culture is taught every year in the four-year program. In the first year, students become acquainted with the definitions and concepts of culture, community and group within the Deaf community. In the second, third and fourth years of the program, the focus shifts to professional training (e.g. SLN grammar, didactics, interpreting skills and so forth). Besides becoming acquainted with the Deaf world, students are trained during these courses to learn more about the position of the deaf within the deaf and the hearing communities, so courses center on such themes as: views of deaf or handicapped people, cultural expression, well-being, etc. In the final year, students are assigned practical assignments. For instance, the student-teachers go into the schools for the deaf (primary and secondary education) to develop and teach SLN courses, or teach adults who want to study SLN as a foreign language. The student-interpreters must practice interpreting in different situations, first under the supervision of a mentor (a certified interpreter) and later on their own. Within the framework of the four-year professional training program, there is a constant focus on the actualization of different subjects like Cochlear Implants for young deaf children and adults, or bilingual education, among many other subjects of interests. During students' practice periods, much attention is paid to the relationship between deaf and hearing colleagues within working situations, even though students are not yet fully licensed teachers or interpreters. In the next section, we will briefly describe the content of the Deaf culture courses and how they are related to the practical assignments.

Content of Deaf Culture Courses

Deaf Culture in the first year

In the first year, we emphasize students contact with the Deaf community. First, students take Deaf culture courses, and they have assignments that orient them toward the Deaf world. Assignments such as these may vary between visiting clubs for the deaf and attending sporting and cultural events like poetry readings and theatre. Students also must gather information on special facilities used by the Deaf. To assess their increasing knowledge of the Deaf world, the students are required to give presentations and write exams. For instance, in a presentation a student-teacher can discuss a case-study of a Deaf person working in a hearing environment and inventorize problems in communication that might arise. Comparisons of deaf and hearing families raising deaf children are also possible. Exams are usually written exams with essay questions or a multiple-choice format on the themes in question.

In the first course, "culture" is approached from a cultural, anthropological and social point of view as outlined by De Jager & Mok (1997) and Hofstede (1991). The word "culture" is discussed from a historical perspective. Concepts and definitions are explained, and later different aspects and features of culture are highlighted. Socialization, enculturalization and the role of language are central to the relationship between culture and identity. In the second course, the Deaf community is the focus. The literature review covers Johnson & Erting (1989), Harris (1995), Govers (1995) and Bahan (1994). Different social issues are also considered, such as is there something we can term a Deaf community? Who makes up this community? How does one become a member of this Deaf community? Taking the literature as a starting point, we investigate different perspective of community, and more specifically, what defines a Deaf community? These two courses offer students a frame of reference that enables them to reflect on specific understandings of Deaf and Deaf culture in general, and this frame provides the basis upon which their future understanding of this unique society will be built.

Deaf Culture in the second year

This second year, we look at the Deaf from different perspectives, for instance from the point of view of the students themselves, and from the point of view of professionals, from that of lay people or perhaps the hearing parents of deaf children. Attention is also paid to how the Deaf are represented in the media and how choices in representation influence the general image of Deaf people that exists in the hearing world and in their own community. For instance, do deaf people figure in Hollywood movies and if so, how are they represented? (Schuchman 1988).

In the fourth course, Cultural Expression is the object of study. The discussion aims for understanding what Deaf culture really is as defined from different theoretical viewpoints. We inventorize aspects that express different views of Deaf culture, for instance the locations where Deaf culture is found, the way Deaf culture is passed from one generation to the next, and the various ways of expressing Deaf culture. Poetry, photography, painting and theatre, storytelling, and other art forms are discussed. Beginning with concrete materials, we discuss if, and how, art forms of the deaf can be recognized as employing specifically Deaf (or other) features.

Deaf Culture in the third year

Recent research in Deaf culture is presented to students with an emphasis on the physical and psychological well being of the Deaf. The central question here is in which way attention for Deaf Culture within the larger community can be a protective factor for the well being of the Deaf. Main topics include Physical/Mental Health, boarding schools, parents, self-approval and acceptance of handicaps, and emancipation programs (Beck & De Jong 1989; Corker 1998; De Graaf & Bijl 1998; Van Eldik 1999). Later in the year, students have to use both what they have learned in the program and their own experiences with Deaf Culture in their own professional field. The student-teachers for instance must observe interactions between deaf and hearing culture in different educational settings. At school, a number of these cases are discussed and reflected upon.

Deaf Culture in the fourth year

The student-interpreters assess the subjects they studied and compare these to their own experiences in the field. They observe the interaction between deaf and hearing cultures in various interpreting settings. Students' positions as interpreters are also discussed, and they must bring in sample cases to study in the lessons.

The student-teachers are given assignments to implement Deaf culture within a certain SLN program. In the Netherlands, Deaf culture is being integrated more and more within primary and secondary education for the Deaf. In different contexts, however, Deaf culture is also taught, for instance, to teachers of the deaf in special education, parents of deaf children, to other professionals, etc. In the present Dutch educational system, SLN teachers must be able to develop courses on Deaf culture for different target groups. In our program, the student-teachers learn to develop a set of lessons on Deaf culture and to teach this set of lessons to a target group while being supervised by a mentor. The student-interpreters have to evaluate their own functioning as interpreters in different cultural settings, and analyze the different aspects of either Deaf or hearing culture, as well as possible moments of conflicts between these two cultures. Examples of possible conflicts related to language-use are manner of turntaking, eye-gaze behavior, use of formal or informal language or interaction patterns. Conflicts of a cultural nature for are manner of introduction or leave-taking or of personal presentation. Also, student must evaluate how they dealt with these conflicts (in the discussion of cultural conflicts, we also make use of other courses in our program, like Ethics or Intervision).

In the final course of the program, students are expected to reflect on their own professional performance within a team of teachers or in interpreting situations. Personal experiences are discussed, and students must gain insight into their (future) positions as teachers/interpreters of SLN in multicultural situations.

Practice Periods

During the first year of this program, students must go into the Deaf community and meet with Deaf people, for many of them often for the first time. In addition to learning about the structure of the Deaf community, they are required to attend various social events. Also, they should be able to focus on the problems that can arise in deaf-hearing communication within a working situation. What is the difference between a hearing family and a Deaf family? For example, they have to consider whether hearing children of Deaf parents are part of the Deaf community. In the second year, students also have to attend different activities organized by the Deaf community The aim is that they build up a network of (Deaf) people who are active within the Deaf community. They also pay a visit to the five institutes for the Deaf in the Netherlands. At these institutes, they must investigate the differences and/or similarities between the various schools their language planning (bilingual or not), policy on education, etc. There is also room within the program for the students to choose an assignment of their own choice; they might visit an institute abroad or work as a volunteer in the Deaf community. This means that they will work for deaf people with deaf people, not within hearing organizations that provide facilities for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. In the third and fourth year of our program, the practice periods for Deaf culture are linked to practice periods for professional skills like teaching o interpreting (see also above).


We have given an impression of the implementation of Deaf culture within a professional vocational training school. The specific problem we repeatedly encounter is that our students are unable to experience Deaf culture in a natural way, for instance by visiting a Deaf country, ant this caused us to look for alternative ways in which our students might experience and become knowledgeable about Deaf culture. By making it possible for both deaf and hearing students to enter the Deaf community in a structured way, we believe that we are succeeding in helping students gain insight into the Deaf community. It is impossible to teach students a new language without also teaching them about its culture: language is imbedded within culture, and the two cannot be separated. We thank the Deaf community for realizing the importance of having good SLN teachers and interpreters and for accepting our students into their social circle in order to become better SLN users.


(1) The use of a capital letter for Deaf indicates that the deaf community is considered as linguistic minority, with a language and culture of their own. Deaf people are not primarily seen a handicapped.

(2) We gratefully acknowledge the work of Annet de Klerk, who studied the literature ant developed the first courses of Deaf Culture, and of Tony Bloem who also teaches courses on Deaf culture.


Bahan, B. (1994). Comment on Turner. Sign Language Studies, 84, 241-249.

Beck, G.A.J. & De Jong, E.M. de (1989). Psychische hulpverlening aan dove kinderen et adolescanten. In A.P.M. Hagen & H. Knoors (eds.) Onderwijs aan dovan. Lisse: Zwets & Zeitlinger, 159 172.

Bogaerde, B. van den (2000) Input and Interaction in Deaf Families. Doctoral Dissertation University of Amsterdam. Utrecht: LOT.

Corker, M. (1998). Deaf transitions. Images and origins of deaf families, deaf communities and deaf identities. Melksham, Wiltshire: Cromwell Press.

De Graaf, de R. & Bijl, R. (1998). Geestelijke gezondheid van doyen. Psyehisehe problematiek en zorggebruik van dove en emstig sleclithorende volwassenen, Utrecht: Trimbos Instituut.

De Jager, H. & Mok, A.L. (1997). Grondbeginselen der sociologie. Stanfort Kroese.

Govers, J. P. (1995) Nieuwe oren van de Keizer. Realiteit of illusie? MA Thesis.

Harris, J. (1995). The Cultural meaning of deafness: Language, identity and power relations Aldershot: A vebury.

Hofstede, G. (1991). Allemaal andersdenkenden: omgaan met cultuurverschillen, (Cultures and Organizations. Software of the Mind). Contact.

Johnson, R. & Erting, C. (1989). Ethnieity and Socialization in a classroom for deaf children, hi C Lucas (ed.) The sociolinguistics of the Deaf Community. Academic Press.

Schuchman, J.S. (1988). Hollywood speaks: deafness and the film entertainment industry. Urban (etc.): University of Illinois Press.

Van Eldik, T. (1999). Psychische problemen, gezinsbelasting, gezinsfunctioneren en meegetuaakt stress bij dove kinderen. Een klinisch-epidemiologiseh onderzoek, Zoetenneer: Institute for the Deaf 'Effatha manuscript.

Beppie van den Bogaerde (PhD) is a sign linguist and the coordinator of the teacher / interpreter curriculum at the Hogeschool van Utrecht. She is also assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam. Marian Stuifzand has a BA in Social Work and is a teacher of Deaf culture, besides being an active member of the Deaf community.
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Author:Stuifzand, Marjan
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:4EUNE
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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