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Sign languages

In most European countries, sign languages are not used as languages of instruction. Work has been undertaken at the ECML to establish European standards for specifying proficiency levels for use in Deaf Studies so that teachers of sign languages, and in particular the profession of interpreters, can better respond to the needs of the community they serve.

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Sign languages are recognised as indigenous languages of Europe but their use as languages of instruction is highly variable across the continent. An ECML project team has worked toward the establishment of European standards for specifying proficiency levels for use in Deaf studies and interpreter education programmes under the auspices of the PRO-Sign project. These will benefit teachers of sign languages, the institutions in which they teach, hearing and deaf students of sign languages, the interpreting profession, and Deaf communities who access public services and crucially, education across the life cycle, via interpretation. (Leeson, June 2014)

Sign languages in Europe

Sign languages are an integral part of Europe’s multilingual diversity. Broadly speaking, each country has its own national sign language; some countries have more than one sign language, e.g. in Finland, both Finnish Sign Language and Finnish-Swedish Sign Language are used, in Switzerland, Swiss-German, Swiss-French and Swiss-Italian Sign Language co-exist. What is critical to note is that the spread of these languages varies, just as it is the case for many of the regional or minority languages of Europe. So, for example, while British Sign Language and Irish Sign Language are to be found on the island of Ireland, Irish Sign Language is prevalent in the Republic of Ireland with British Sign Language being the dominant sign language of Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, Irish Sign Language is predominantly used by members of the Catholic community (Sutton-Spence & Woll 2007). As rich as spoken languages in terms of grammar, structure, syntax and lexicon, sign languages rate among the various linguistic and cultural assets European countries have to offer.

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Sign language and Deaf education

Even though many European countries have already recognised their national sign languages, their use as languages of instruction remains to be addressed. As a result, deaf children typically experience very limited access to education where the language of instruction is their local/regional sign language. In some countries, sign language interpreters are provided to deaf children in mainstream educational settings, but this is not unproblematic as it assumes that deaf children will have acquired or learned their local/regional sign language before entering school and this is not always the case. Another factor coming into play is that the European Union of the Deaf estimated in 2010 that the ratio of registered interpreters to Deaf sign language users is at 1 to 62. (Wheatley & Pabsch, 2010)

How ECML projects contribute to sign language education

To ensure access to public services and, crucially, education across the life cycle for future generations of Deaf communities across Europe, an ECML project aimed at establishing European standards for specifying proficiency levels for use in Deaf studies and interpreting programmes offered at tertiary level. The PRO-Sign project is the first seeking to develop materials that will also benefit teachers of sign languages, the institutions in which they teach, hearing and deaf students of sign languages as well as the interpreting profession as a whole. For further information, please see the project’s website. 

The ECML is convinced that sign languages are of great relevance to the education of both deaf and hearing people including those selecting careers as interpreters and educators. Thus, ECML seeks to strengthen cooperation with associations and experts representing sign language users. Concrete tools for enhanced learning of this target group are currently under development.

Sign languages and other thematic areas

Evaluation and assessment 

The proficiency specification of the first PROSIGN project is closely linked to the Common European Framework of Reference for Language, the second PROSIGN project to the European Language Portfolio. More information about these resources can be found in the thematic area ‘Evaluation and assessment”. 

Teacher and learner competences 

The current project ‘Promoting excellence in sign language instruction’ is also concerned with Teacher and learner competences.

Languages of schooling 

Supporting the teaching of sign languages in school is one element of more general Languages of schooling policy, which is the focus of several ECML projects.

Featured resources

Promoting excellence in sign language instruction (PROSIGN)

  ProSign resources integrate sign language education into Council of Europe developments in language education, especially the Common European Framework of References (CEFR). Highlights are an adaptation of the CEFR levels to sign languages in a modality neutral version, a model of a signed version of the European Language Portfolio (ELP) and approaches to assessment in this field. All information is available in International Sign and in English.

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Current project

Developing teacher competences for pluralistic approaches
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