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Common European Framework of Reference for Sign Languages

Background and aims

Empirical basis for grammatical, pragmatic and sociolinguistic descriptors in German-Swiss Sign Language (DSGS)


The aim of this project is to define suitable descriptors for communication skills involved in the productive and receptive use of DSGS “textual skills”.

Textual skills can also be described for non-written languages – that is the point of departure for this three-year project to devise a Common European Framework of Reference for Sign Languages (CEFR-SL). The qualitative characteristics constituting “textuality” derive not from the written medium as such, but from the way in which a thought is expressed and processed.

However, languages without a written system require a new approach to defining the criteria for textual “reading” and “writing” skills. The deaf make use of digital media, notably videos, to overcome the ephemeral nature of face-to-face communication and to capture and pass on a presentation, a story, a declaration, a work of art, etc. These videos feature the same characteristics as those applied to written texts and text types, and they lend themselves to precise study. We recognise them, for example, in terms of quality of message, structured content, coherence, targeting of recipient, flow, but also formal linguistic technicalities.


What are “textual” skills in the case of sign language texts? In other words, what knowledge (descriptors) do people learning sign language have or need in order to produce or understand certain types of text? What levels of language proficiency does this knowledge express?


For 36 months work will be devoted to establishing by empirical means what descriptors should be applied to which levels of the CEFR-SL in the case of German Swiss Sign Language (DSGS).  

The project draws on empirical means to determine descriptors for specific communication skills which characterise clearly differentiated levels of language proficiency among those learning a sign language as a foreign or second language.

These descriptors, in turn, form the basis for a common European reference framework that can be used to determine, characterise, standardise and test language proficiency among those learning a sign language as a foreign or second language.  

Methods used to identify descriptors for textual skills:

  • selection of competent deaf subjects, i.e. native signers drawn from the community
  • video recordings for each type of text
  • first expert consultation with DSGS sign language teachers to determine criteria intuitively
  • comparison of videos with native signers and videos with sign language learners
  • video transcription and analysis
  • second expert consultation with sign language teachers to produce a qualitative assessment and description of the videos
  • definition of descriptors and allocation to levels using quantitative methods
  • third expert consultation with external experts and sign language teachers
  • interpretation and conclusions


Robust descriptors for “textuality” skills in German-Swiss Sign Language will be identified empirically and categorised by analytical means.   The specific descriptors will differentiate between receptive “reading” and productive “writing” skills and visualised on a “can do” grid, distinguishing between six levels of language proficiency for those learning sign as a foreign language. These then provide the basis for SL courses geared to each specific level, continuing training that addresses specific themes, vocational training, standardised tests, recognising certificates etc.



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Forschung und Entwicklung
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