|Flemish Sign Language|
|Vlaamse Gebarentaal (VGT)|
|Native to||Flanders (Belgium)|
|6,000 (2005) to 5,000 (2014)|
Flemish Sign Language (Dutch: Vlaamse Gebarentaal, VGT) is the deaf sign language of Belgium. VGT and French Belgian Sign Language are very closely related, but now generally recognized as distinct languages. VGT is estimated to include around 6,000 sign-language users (Loots et al., 2003).
When the first deaf schools were established in Flanders, the teachers were directly or indirectly influenced by the methods used at the Paris deaf school[clarification needed] (and consequently by French Sign Language). They either followed training programs in Paris or in two deaf schools in the Netherlands (Groningen and Sint-Michielsgestel), which were themselves influenced by the Paris school.
As with other neighbouring countries, the education of deaf children was strongly influenced by the resolutions that took place at the Milan Conference in 1880. These resolutions banned the use of signs in the education of deaf children in favour of an oral approach. It has been viewed as a dark day in the history of sign language.
By the beginning of the 20th century, there was a deaf school in every major town in Flanders. Some towns even had two: one for boys and one for girls. Most of the schools were residential and pupils only went home during the holidays, and later on also during the weekends. As a result, regional sign language varieties started to develop around every school.
It is now generally accepted and confirmed by research that Flemish Sign Language consists of five regional varieties. They have developed in and around the different Flemish deaf schools: West Flanders, East Flanders, Antwerp, Flemish Brabant, and Limburg (De Weerdt et al., 2003).
Besides the differences between regions, there is also intra-regional variation. Until the 1970s, there were separate schools for deaf boys and girls, which has led to gender variation. Some signs which are commonly used today were boys’ or girls’ signs in origin. There are more reasons for the relatively high degree of intra-regional variation.
At the moment there is no standardized sign language in Flanders. There is however an ongoing process of spontaneous standardization (mostly due to increased contact between deaf people from different regions).
Another important aspect influencing the language is the federalization process which has taken place in Belgium along ethnic lines as Flemish or Walloon. Today, every Belgian belongs to a certain linguistic group and the same goes for deaf people. Ironically they are also considered Flemish or Walloon, part of the linguistic majority of speakers of Dutch or French, despite the sign language they use and the linguistic minority to which they belong.
The federalization occurred in 1993, which was the result of a long process. In the 1970s, the national deaf federation, NAVEKADOS, split up into a Flemish and a Walloon federation. Fevlado (Federatie van Vlaamse Dovenorganisaties or the "Association of Flemish Deaf Organizations") was founded in 1977.
Cultural activities have been organized separately since then, and the Flemish and the Walloon deaf clubs have been subsidized from different sources. Contacts between Flemish and Walloon deaf people have become less and less frequent. This affected the sign languages' development in both communities, which are becoming more divergent as they go through separate standardization processes.
Therefore, the name for the sign language has changed over time. "Belgian Sign Language" became "Flemish-Belgian Sign Language", which later became the now preferred "Flemish Sign Language" on the Flemish side. On the Wallonian side, "French Belgian Sign Language" became "Walloon Sign Language".
The Flemish Parliament had sign language interpreters for the parliamentary debates while Helga Stevens, who is deaf, was member of the parliament.
Some of the major reference works for Flemish Sign Language are: