The Language Rich Europe launch took place in Budapest, Hungary on 15 June 2012. Simon Ingram-Hill, British Council Hungary Director writes about the day.
Last Friday 15 June, we presented the findings of the Language Rich Europe research in the morning and ran the first national workshop on sign language in the afternoon. The beautiful and prestigious Banking Hall in the British Embassy was a worthy venue for such an occasion. Though not a full house, numbers held throughout the day and very active participants included government, public and private sectors, researchers and academics, NGOs and heads of cultural institutions. Translation from and to sign language was provided for the whole duration of the event.
The Hungarian government endorsed the significance of the launch in an opening speech by Miklós Soltész, State Secretary for Social, Family and Youth Affairs at the mega-ministry of Human Resources, which covers everything from Education, Health and Culture to Sport and Youth. State Secretary Soltész (see photo) made the point that nations live through their languages, and Hungarians were justly proud of the uniqueness of theirs. But he also emphasised the importance of fighting for the preservation of minority languages, and the special significance of Hungarian policy recognising sign language for the deaf as an official minority language.
Jonathan Knott, UK Ambassador to Hungary, picked up on this recognition of sign language pointing out that in policy terms Hungary is trendsetting in the European context. The Ambassador also made a strong reference to England’s own lack of national capability in languages and that, despite languages being described as important, in practice and provision there have been many fault lines; thus anticipating the launch of the findings of the LRE report for England on 28 June. His speech therefore was much appreciated for referring to UK’s own failings and leaving it to others to set out the Hungary stall.
Eilidh MacDonald, Project Coordinator (Berlin) and Project Director Martin Hope (Brussels) then followed with their overview of the project and comparative country results. The Hungary results were presented by Dr Csilla Bartha, LRE project partner and Senior Research Fellow at the Research Institute for Linguistics, Research Centre for Multilingualism and a panel discussion followed. Some points worth mentioning here:
- English is not a “danger” to other European languages.
- Hungarian is a majority language in Hungary but a minority language in neighbouring countries.
- Hungarian sign language – should it be “integrated” into the curriculum or should it be “segregated” taught in special schools for the deaf?
- Multilingualism is not just about foreign languages but requires support for its regional and minority languages, too.
- UK has a high reputation for teaching sign language at school level.
- It is difficult but necessary to preserve the identity of minority languages such as Romani and crucially important to teach Roma children and adults foreign languages (Director of Research Studies for the Roma and adviser to the Minister of Economy).
- There are 7 sign languages in Hungary alone.
- If you want to be well qualified and be mobile for employment purposes then foreign languages should be made compulsory throughout EU.
- The LRE project has helped researchers and others to build up contacts and networks between countries and across communities.
The afternoon workshop on sign language proved extremely rich, including presentations by MEP Ádám Kósa and President of SINOSZ (the Hungarian Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing), Koloman Brenner, Deputy Dean responsible for strategy, ELTE University, Faculty of Liberal Arts, and Csilla Bartha. Discussions were followed by an extremely moving performance of a play performed by Ergo Sum sign language theatre. This was filmed and will be made into a 15-20 minutes shortened version for Youtube with Hungarian and English interpretations and hopefully for showing at the European Parliament next March.
Finally there was a round table discussion moderated (in sign language) by Péter Zalán Romanek which also brought in Vera Tóthmárton from Tesco Hungary and Péter Horváth. Some striking points
- Is sign language a true language or just a tool? Officially EU has acknowledged sign language but does not make it a legal requirement. Is it a minority language or a language used by those with a physical ability? Hungary legislation accepts both.
- Hungary is one of only 3 countries that protect the culture of the deaf at the state level through the constitution.
- In US university students with hearing disabilities get extra help to learn foreign languages instead of giving an exemption.
- Tesco as a responsible employer has developed good practice tools for dealing with deaf customers and operates an equal opportunity policy which has posts at different levels for deaf employees. Tesco recognises this is very much work in progress.
- Very few deaf people have the opportunity to learn foreign languages.
- In USA, American sign language is the 5th most popular foreign language.
- At ELTE, special tutors are assigned to talented students from the deaf community
All in all a really rich day of revealing findings, discussion and plenty of food for further thought.