SignWriting in Belgium
Flemish Sign Language Dictionary

About the
Flemish Deaf Community

and Flemish Sign Language

by Katrien Van Mulders


Flanders is the northern part of Belgium, a small European country with about 10,000,000 inhabitants and 10 provinces. Flanders consists of 5 provinces: Antwerp, East-Flanders, Flemish-Brabant, Limburg and West-Flanders. Since 1993 Belgium has been a federalized monarchy with two larger states (Flanders and Wallonia) and a small German-speaking area in the east of the country. It has three officially recognized languages: Dutch (Flanders), French (Wallonia) and German.

The Dutch spoken in Flanders (in the past sometimes referred to as Flemish) is the same as the Dutch used by people in the Netherlands. Differences include mostly pronunciation and – to a much lesser extent – lexicon and grammar, comparable to the differences between American English and British English, for instance.

As is the case in many other countries, the education of Belgian Deaf people has been strongly influenced by the decisions made at the ‘famous’ 1880 Milan Conference. There a gathering of European and American educators decided that the d/Deaf should be educated orally and signs banned from their classrooms. All Flemish Deaf schools – of which most were founded before 1883 – officially followed this Oralistic doctrine until 1980. This negative attitude towards sign language did not cause sign languages to disappear, however. On Flemish playgrounds too, the children continued to use signs amongst themselves. At the beginning of the century every Flemish province had a Deaf school. Some even had two: one for girls and one for boys. Since all schools were residential, implying that the students only went home for the holidays or – later on – weekends, regional sign language variants started to develop at each school. The regions in which these variants were (and are) used more or less coincide with the Flemish provinces. At the moment, there are five such variants. Flanders does not have a standardized sign language. A process of spontaneous standardization is going on though, as Deaf people from the different regions are increasingly having contact in school, when going to joint activities, conferences, etc (De Weerdt et al., 2003).

Today, most Deaf schools still use the oral method to educate their pupils, although the attitude towards the use of signs has changed. One school has implemented bilingual/bicultural education and several other ones show interest in this form of education. Some students also attend ‘hearing’ schools assisted by a sign language interpreter, but the number of interpreted hours these students are entitled to is extremely low. Flemish Sign Language thus still is not used as a/the language of education, something most sign language researchers and a large part of the Flemish Deaf Community would very much like to see happening.

The division of Belgium into two states has also influenced and continues to influence the sign language used by the Flemish Deaf. Today, every Belgian – including those who are d/Deaf – either belongs to the Flemish or the Walloon language community. So every Deaf person in Belgium is considered to ‘use’ either Dutch or French, depending on where they are born/live and regardless of the sign language they use. This categorization is important as it determines what school a d/Deaf child goes to or whether it is entitled to the use of a free hearing aid or the assistance of a sign language interpreter. In the seventies the national Deaf federation NAVEKADOS (NAtionale VEreniging van KAtholieke Doof-Stommen – National Society of the Catholic Deaf-Mutes) had already split into FEVLADO (Federatie van VLAamse DovenOrganisaties – Association of the Flemish Deaf Organizations) and FFSB (Fédération Francophone des Sourds de Belgique – French Association of the Belgian Deaf). Since this separation, all kinds of activities have been organized separately, and subsidies have been received from different sources. Consequently, contact between the Flemish and Walloon Deaf people has reduced, causing their respective sign languages to develop separately and deviate further from each other (Van Herreweghe 2002). In addition, the LSFB (Langue des Signes de Belgique Francophone – Belgian French-Speaking Sign Language) was recently officially recognized as the first language of the Walloon Deaf people. This is still not the case for Flemish Sign Language.

So far, I have always talked about the Flemish Deaf community – consisting of approximately 6,000 sign language users (Loots et al, 2003) – using Flemish Sign Language. Up until fifteen years ago, however, the community used the term ‘Belgian Sign Language’, because the researchers believed there were more resemblances between the two sign languages used in Flanders and Wallonia than between those used in Flanders and the Netherlands. A few years ago, the name changed. Because of the lack of sufficient linguistic evidence that would enable us to speak of two completely different sign languages, the compromise ‘Flemish Belgian Sign Language’ was chosen to refer to the variant used in Flanders. However, because of the split of NAVEKADOS, reduced contact between the Flemish and Walloon Deaf and the different processes of standardization, the Deaf got more and more dissatisfied with the term ‘Flemish Belgian’ and wanted to change it into ‘Flemish’. FEVLADO also advocated this change at an Annual General Meeting in October 2000. Since I wish to respect the opinion of the Flemish Deaf organizations, I will use the term ‘Flemish Sign Language’ in the remainder of this paper, abbreviated to VGT (Vlaamse Gebarentaal).

Katrien Van Mulders


De Weerdt, K., E. Vanhecke, M. Van Herreweghe and M. Vermeerbergen

2001 “De Vlaamse Gebarentaal: dialecten en standaardisering” (“Flemish Sign Language: dialects and standardisation”).

Lecture held at the congress “Gebarentaal in Vlaanderen”, 12-13 oktober 2001, Ghent University.

Van Herreweghe, M.

2002 "Turn-taking mechanisms and Active Participation in Meetings with Deaf and Hearing Participants in Flanders".

In C. Lucas (ed), Turn-taking, Fingerspelling and Contact in Signed Languages. Washington, DC: Gallaudet Univ. Press.

Loots, G., I. Devise, G. Lichtert, N. Hoebrechts, C. Van De Ginste and I. De Bruyne

2003 De Gemeenschap van doven en slechthorenden in Vlaanderen. Communicatie, taal en verwachtingen omtrent maatschappelijke toegankelijkheid. (The Community of deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Flanders. Communication, language and expectations concerning societal accessibility.)

Gent: vzw Cultuur voor Doven.

Katrien Van Mulders


Prof. dr. Mieke Van Herreweghe

English Department
Ghent University
Rozier 44, 9000 Ghent, Belgium
tel. +32 - 9 - 264 37 92
fax +32 - 9 - 264 41 79

SignWriting in Belgium
Flemish Sign Language Dictionary