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Sign languages in UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger Project

This project helped to put endangered sign languages ‘on the map’ thanks to a collaboration with UNESCO and the Foundation for Endangered Languages. 


The online interactive atlas, as well as the book version of the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger contain information on approximately 2,500 endangered languages, including hundreds of extinct languages.

With this project, we mapped endangered sign languages for the first time using the same rigorous method as UNESCO and the peer review of a number of sign language experts.

For many years, the Atlas has been used to increase awareness among policy-makers, communities and the general public about endangered languages and why we need to protect linguistic diversity across the globe.

UNESCO already had access to significant data about which spoken languages are endangered, and how endangered they are (e.g. definitely, severely, critically). Scholars at iSLanDS, along with other sign language linguists, NGOs and Deaf people, believed that the Atlas should also include signed languages.

Survey Adaptation

Starting in 2011, Prof Zeshan took a lead in adapting UNESCO’s Endangered Languages Survey, to create a new version of the questionnaire which has been used for the past two years as a tool for systematic data collection on sign language endangerment, and the data are being analysed by a dedicated academic committee at iSLanDS.

Feedback and comments from numerous peer reviewers across the globe, including the WFD Expert Committee on Sign Languages and academics in the European Science Foundation’s consortium project on Endangered Sign Languages in Village Communities, was sought and implemented in this adaptation process.

The resulting questionnaire reflects many particularities of sign language using communities and ensures the collected data are relevant to our project. Though we aimed to keep the items as similar as possible to the spoken language version, a significant number of questions and answer options were changed by necessity in order to account for the different factors affecting sign languages.

For example, endangered spoken languages are usually under threat from more dominant spoken languages, but endangered sign languages might be threatened by both spoken languages and more dominant sign languages. Also, the increasing use of technology such as cochlear implants affects sign languages much more than it affects spoken languages.

First Results

After data collection, we submitted the results to the Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL) in several distinct batches for future inclusion in the Atlas. The sign languages we have analysed so far, whose locations are shown in the map above, are listed below with their respective vitality levels and the names of our valued contributors, who have each provided incredibly detailed data on their sign language through our questionnaire. We are very grateful to all of these individuals and organisations for making this project possible by giving generously of their time and expertise. Levels of endangerment are graded as follows: 1 = Critically endangered; 2 = Severely endangered; 3 = Definitely endangered; 4 = Vulnerable.

Scroll or swipe on small screens to see all table columns

Name of Sign Language Name of Contributor Approximate Number of Users Country Level of Endangerment
Algerian Jewish Sign Language (AJSL) Sara Lanesman and Irit Meir 50-100 Israel 1
Alipur Sign Language (APSL) Sibaji Panda 10, 000 India 3
Al-Sayidd Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) Dr Shifra Kisch 1500 Israel 3
Austrian Sign Language (OGS) Austrian Deaf Association (OGLB) 20, 000 Austria 4
Ban Khor Sign Language (BKSL) Dr Angela Nonaka 403 Thailand 2
Brazilian Sign Language (Libras) Ronice Muller de Quadros Unknown Brazil 4
Chican Sign Language (ChicanSL) Cesar Ernesto Escobedo Delgado and Olivier Le Guen 349 (17 deaf, 332 hearing) Mexico 2
Danish Sign Language Danish Deaf Association 4-5000 Denmark 4
Ethiopian Sign Language (EthSL) Eyasu H. Tamene 70, 000 Ethiopia 3
Finland- Swedish Sign Language (FinSSL) Karin Hoyer and Janne Kankkonen 300 Finland 2
Inuit Sign Language Joke Schuit 40 Canada 1
Kata Kolok Dr Connie de Vos 1250 Indonesia 3
Mardin Sign Language (MarSL) Hasan Dikyuva 40 Turkey 1
New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) Rachel McKee 24, 000 New Zealand 4
Yucatec Maya Sign Language (YMSL)- Nohkop variant Olivier Le Guen 34 Mexico 2

These data constitute a limited number of languages, but the results so far suggest that endangerment is prevalent among signed languages, and that significant threats are even posed to national sign languages that are legally recognised and used by larger communities.

Overall, the village sign languages here tend to be threatened by the dispersal of the language community, the decreasing birth of deaf children and changes in marital patterns, while national/urban sign languages are affected by the increasing demand for cochlear implants and the disappearance of sign languages from schools.

These findings have added to our knowledge on endangered sign languages stemming from work on Sign Language Typology and Village Sign Languages as well as the assistance of a worldwide network of sign language users who have shared their expertise with us.