Promotion in times of endangerment: the Sign Language Act in Finland


The development of sign language recognition legislation is a relatively recent phenomenon in the field of language policy. So far only few authors have documented signing communities’ aspirations for recognition legislation, how they work with their governments to achieve legislation which most reflects these goals, and whether and why outcomes are successful. Indeed, from signing communities’ point of view, it appears most current legislation leaves much to be desired. One reason for this is the absence of language acquisition rights and the right to access services directly in sign language. This paper, through appealing to a critical language policy framework and employing principles of the ethnography of language policy, will illustrate this by critically analyzing the ambitions and motives, as expressed by the Finnish Association of the Deaf, for a Sign Language Act in Finland. It also compares the situation of signers in Finland with that of the Sámi, the other minority group mentioned in the constitution with designated language legislation. The findings suggest that the Act is innovative and internationally unique in different aspects but does not reflect FAD’s most important pursuits, and is very different from the Sámi Language Act. An exploration of the reasons behind this difference, which makes Finland’s sign languages both promoted and endangered, can make significant contributions to the field of sign language policy but also to the wider (critical) language policy field.

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  2. 2.

    Interviews were conducted in International Sign. Quotes provided in this article were translated by the author from International Sign to English.

  3. 3.

  4. 4.

    K. Alanne, Director of FAD Development Department (personal communication, May 14, 2013).

  5. 5.

    M. Jokinen, FAD Executive Director (personal communication, May 3, 2012).

  6. 6.

    While this has rightly been criticized by FAD, compared to other European countries where many hearing parents do not receive sign language teaching at all, let alone at home free of charge, this situation is very progressive.

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    K. Alanne, Director of FAD Development Department (personal communication, April 19, 2012).

  8. 8.

  9. 9.

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    Such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which Finland is expected to ratify in 2016.

  11. 11.

    An authority is defined in the Act as courts and other authorities of the state, municipal authorities, independent public law institutions and bureaus of the Parliament. The Act would also pertain to other institutions managing public administration. Beside the state, government officials include municipalities, federations of municipalities, the province of Åland, the Evangelical-Lutheran church and other autonomous units as well as independent organisations of public administration such as the Social Insurance Institute and public law associations.

  12. 12.

    M. Soininen, Senior Officer at the Ministry of Justice (personal communication, April 9, 2015).

  13. 13.

    Meanwhile, the Finnish Government has established a sign language advisory working group to promote communication and information between key actors, monitor implementation of the Sign Language Act and draw up a report on the overall situation of FinSSL (

  14. 14.

    M. Soininen, Senior Officer at the Ministry of Justice (personal communication, April 17, 2015).

  15. 15.

  16. 16.

    In the very same week as the Sign Language Act was approved, the Finnish Parliament rejected a law on the reform of the Sámi Parliament (and the definition of Sámi), which constitutes a serious violation of the Sámi’s right to self-determination—of which an important element is the right to define group membership.

  17. 17.

    A useful commentary about the tensions between top-down and bottom-up language planning efforts is noted in Gras (2008).

  18. 18.

    K. Alanne, Director of FAD Development Department (personal communication, April 19, 2012).

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I give special thanks to the (former) staff of the Finnish Association of the Deaf, especially Kaisa Alanne, Markku Jokinen, Liisa Kauppinen, Karin Hoyer, Virpi Thurén and Seppo Pukko for sharing their perspectives with me. I would like to thank John Bosco Conama, Verena Krausneker, Paddy Ladd, Ritva Takkinen and Luk Van Mensel for their very useful comments on earlier drafts of this article. I also thank the two anonymous reviewers from Language Policy and the University of Jyvaskyla for providing translation of documents in Finnish.

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De Meulder, M. Promotion in times of endangerment: the Sign Language Act in Finland. Lang Policy 16, 189–208 (2017).

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  • Sign language legislation
  • Sign language planning and policy
  • Finland
  • Critical language policy