Center for the Study of Language and Society (CSLS)

Languages and Lives in Deaf Communities

Robert Adam

Assistant Professor at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh (Scotland)

Chair of Language and Intercultural Studies

Robert Adam is Assistant Professor Department of Language and Inter-Cultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University (Scotland). He is an expert on sign language standardization and how language policy intersects with the politics of D/deafness in contemporary European societies.


Minority sign language contact

This presentation will discuss language contact in minority sign language communities in sign (1) sign language communities, with a historical review of what has happened in some communities and their sign languages, and (2) individuals from a minority sign language community.

I will discuss some of the outcomes of language planning and language shift in deaf communities around the world, as a result of sign language colonialism, and sign language unification (Adam, 2015). Some sign languages have been supplanted by other sign languages, and some spoken languages have increased in prominence (particularly in education) over sign languages (Robinson & Henner, 2017).

I will then turn to examples of minority sign language communities from Australian Irish Sign Language (Adam, 2016) and Maritime Sign Language (Buchanan, 2021) focussing on endangered sign language communities. Examples of ongoing language attrition are seen in conversation data, where participants struggled to retrieve lexical items from their first language, the minority sign language, and resorted to using strategies to overcome difficulties in retrieval of signs. These include fingerspelling in their own minority sign language, fingerspelling in the majority sign language, doubling the item with a sign from both languages or doubling the item with a sign from one of the two languages and a fingerspelled item. These fingerspelling switches seem to be unique to sign languages in that conversation partners not only resort to using lexical signs from one or the other language but also to the fingerspelling system.



Adam, Robert. (2015). Standardization of Sign Languages. Sign Language Studies, 15(4), 432-445.

Adam, Robert. (2016). Unimodal bilingualism in the Deaf community: Language contact between two sign languages in Australia and the United Kingdom. (PhD), University College London, London.

Buchanan, Beverly. (2021). Preservation of Maritime Sign Language: An Endangered Language of Canada. (PhD), Lamar University, USA.

Robinson, Octavian E, & Henner, Jonathan. (2017). The personal is political in The Deaf Mute Howls: deaf epistemology seeks disability justice. Disability & Society, 32(9), 1416-1436. doi: