Research Areas

5. Sign Language and Sign Language Interpreting

Sign Languages (SL) are the natural language choice of deaf communities and individuals to express themselves.* In Switzerland, one of three regional Swiss sign languages may be used as a first or primary language: Swiss German sign language DSGS, Swiss French sign language (LSF-SR) and Swiss Italian sign language (LIS-SI). These languages, with their visual-gestural modality, have all properties associated with natural languages. Sign languages provide a basis for access to education as well as the written forms of spoken languages.

The situation of higher education of and for deaf people in Switzerland up to now remains underresearched and underdocumented. Compared to the overall numbers of deaf and hearing impaired people in Switzerland, the numbers of those of them starting a higher education (high school, university) are inexplicably low. It has long been argued that this is due to a lack in bilingual schooling, i. e. schooling using both one of three regional sign languages (DSGS, LSF-SR, LIS-SI) and one of three regionally written/spoken official languages (German, French, Italian), starting in pre-school and primary school.

Research Area 5 was set up in order to improve the access of deaf individuals to Swiss higher education. Participation of deaf people in Swiss education is hinged on state-of-the-art translation and interpretation services, on novel technologies and further development of sign languages for academic and specific purposes. In schooling and higher education, social participation and exchange for SL users are possible only, if and when members of the linguistic majority are willing and able to communicate in these minority languages (DSGS, LSF-SR and LIS-SI).

The main objectives of Research Area 5 are therefore:

  • To document accessible solutions in/to the Swiss education system for deaf people and describing the status quo of technological aides and assistance possible and practised in the Swiss education system;
  • To document research projects on SL, technological advancement of online sign language encyclopedias, machine translation, learning tools, language courses according to GER etc.;
  • To coordinate and develop research collaborations, service structures and networking between the deaf communities and institutions of higher education;
  • To contribute to the networking of hearing and deaf researchers building on existing cooperation (cf. Shores et al. 2016).


Relationships between Research Areas 5 and R6:

Working on sign languages in Switzerland necessitates to pay attention to all three Swiss sign languages: DSGS, LSF-SR and LSF-SI. In order to meet this challenge, the project members at University of Geneva (Pierrette Bouillon and Irene Strasly) and ZHAW (Christiane Hohenstein, Manuela Näf) work closely together. As a first step, a questionnaire in all Swiss spoken and sign languages was compiled with the aim to get a clear picture and representative data with regard to higher education accessibility and the needs of the target groups in Switzerland.


* As minority languages, they are explicitly recognised by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD. According to the UN’s CRPD, “Language” includes spoken and signed languages and other forms of non spoken languages. In Switzerland, only in the Cantons of Geneva and Zurich, the regional sign languages are recognised as official languages.