Dr Annelies Kusters

Project Title: Exploring family sign language policy in mixed deaf-hearing families

“Family language policy” is a term used to point at decisions that multilingual families make about the languages they use in their families, the reasons for these decisions, and the actual language use in these families. We focus on family language policy in three families where spoken language(s) and signed language(s) are used: they are thus using different modalities (signing/speaking) in everyday face to face communication. The three families in our project include hearing children above 2 years old, who are bilingual or multilingual and use different signed and spoken languages and are growing up with a mix of deaf and/or hearing parents and deaf and/or hearing grandparents.

Family language policy is intimate so the three families we decided to observe initially are our own as we already have a deep understanding of our family dynamics and contexts. So, this means we didn’t need a long period of immersion first, and are not “strange” researchers coming into families. We made ethnographic video recordings of our family interactions, mostly at mealtimes and at story time. We also constructed language biographies of the families, wrote field notes, undertook interviews with members of each family to explore language choices, and analysed children’s drawings and language portraits.

We found that family language policy is much more complex than using a determined number of different signed/spoken languages at home. Real data are “messy”. Clean “switches” with one person always using one language/modality are few, and the relationship between family members and the language/modality they use is not binary. Switching between and mixing languages and modalities happened more frequently than expected.

Awarded: Research Incentive Grant

Field: Language & Linguistics

University: Heriot-Watt University

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