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The Role of Sign Language in Centres for Hearing and Speech

Background and aims

In German-speaking Switzerland, sign language still plays a marginal role at centres with a focus on hearing and speech skills. Sign language is acknowledged and accepted, but there is little training on the curriculum. These centres are now increasingly confronted with the choice of pursuing a bilingual (spoken and sign language) approach. In the international context, bilingual/bimodal models exist, but there is a lack of evidence-based practice.

An education model incorporating sign language has now been empirically analysed and described in Switzerland for the first time. For two years the innovative Centre for Hearing and Speech in Münchenbuchsee (Canton Bern) has been offering sign language as a timetabled subject, and bilingual teaching is also provided. This calls for an assessment of the role sign language plays in this setting.


This case study shows how sign language is seen and weighted by those involved in the Centre and how it has been used in everyday practice. Staff at the department for the deaf (teachers, hearing & speech therapists, social workers − with and without hearing) were asked in problem-centred interviews about the significance they attach to sign language. They were also observed and video-recorded during their everyday activities (classroom, break, lunch hour).


1. Sign language plays a role both in mind sets (as a subjective construction) and in practice (sign language teaching, bilingual teaching).

2. Bilingualism is not, however, an educational objective. It is not (yet) one of two languages with equal status; rather, its status among most of the staff is that of a foreign language or teaching aid.

3. Moreover, there is evidently a tendency − especially among social workers and hearing therapists − to use the terms “sign”, “signed language” and “sign language” vaguely, interchangeably and without clear distinction.

4. Sign language is used in practice, and much teaching content is visualised. At the same time, however, most of those who are not deaf are actually using a signed version of the spoken language. For some members of staff, the prime purpose seems to be to convey content unidirectionally (from the adult perspective); the focus of their communication with students is on making themselves understood and conveying content, and not primarily on communication by or among students.

5. Two SL-oriented members of staff who are themselves hard of hearing always use sign language, both to communicate in class and as a specific subject on the curriculum. In lessons with team teaching (i.e. one deaf and one hearing teacher) the focus is on the principle “one language, one person”. The resources are available here for contrastive teaching with comparative linguistics, but not much use is made of them.

The clear recommendation is that the Centre as a whole should consolidate and build on its current position. Sign language proficiency and didactic skills should above all be promoted to enable everyone to participate effectively in everyday and classroom communication.



Project Management

Dr. phil.  Audeoud


Project team


Forschung und Entwicklung
Tel: +41 44 317 11 81

zfe[at] zfe