Flemish Sign Language

Flemish Sign Language
Vlaamse Gebarentaal (VGT)
Native to Flanders (Belgium)
Native speakers
6,000 (2005) to 5,000 (2014)[1]
Lyons Sign?
French Sign?
  • Belgian Sign Language

    • Flemish Sign Language
Language codes
ISO 639-3 vgt
Glottolog vlaa1235[2]

Flemish Sign Language (Dutch: Vlaamse Gebarentaal; VGT) is the sign language of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, a country in Western Europe. In Wallonia, the French Belgian Sign Language is used. These two sign languages are not related. The Flemish deaf community is estimated to include approximately 6,000 sign-language users (Loots et al., 2003).


When the first deaf schools were established in Flanders, the teachers were directly or indirectly influenced by the methods used at the Paris deaf school (and consequently by French Sign Language); either by following training programs in Paris, or by following training programs in two deaf schools in the Netherlands (Groningen and Sint-Michielsgestel), which were themselves influenced by the Paris school.

However, as with neighbouring countries, the education of deaf children was strongly influenced by the resolutions that took place at the Milan Conference in 1880. These resolutions banned the use of signs in the education of deaf children in favour of an oral approach. It has been viewed as a dark day in the history of sign language.

By the beginning of the 20th century there was a deaf school in every major town in Flanders, and in some towns there were even two: one for boys and one for girls. Most of the schools were residential and pupils only went home during the holidays, and later on also during the weekends. As a result, regional sign language varieties started to develop around every school.

Regional variation

It is now generally accepted and confirmed by research, that Flemish Sign Language consists of five regional varieties which have developed in and around the different Flemish deaf schools: West Flanders, East Flanders, Antwerp, Flemish Brabant, and Limburg (De Weerdt et al., 2003).

Next to the differences between the regions, there is intra-regional variation. One example is gender related variation. Until the 1970s, there were separate schools for deaf boys and girls and this has led to gender variation: some of the signs which are generally used today were boys’ signs or girls’ signs in origin. There are of course more reasons for the relatively high degree of intra-regional variation.

At the moment there is no standardized sign language in Flanders, although there is an ongoing process of spontaneous standardization (mostly due to increasing contacts between deaf people from different regions).


Another important aspect influencing the language is the federalization process which has taken place in Belgium along ethnic lines as Flemish or Walloon. Today every Belgian belongs to a certain linguistic group and the same goes for deaf people. Ironically they are also considered Flemish or Walloon, part of the linguistic majority of speakers of Dutch or French, despite the sign language they use and the linguistic minority to which they belong.

The federalization was a fact in 1993, but this was of course the result of a long process. In the 1970s, the national deaf federation, NAVEKADOS, split up into a Flemish and a Walloon federation and Fevlado (Federatie van Vlaamse Dovenorganisaties or the "Association of Flemish Deaf Organizations") was founded in 1977. As a result, cultural activities have been organized separately since then, and the Flemish and the Walloon deaf clubs have been subsidized from different sources. Contacts between Flemish and Walloon deaf people have become less and less frequent and this has had its effect on the development of the sign languages in both communities which are deviating from each other as they go through separate standardization processes.

Therefore, the name for the sign language has changed over time from "Belgian Sign Language", to "Flemish-Belgian Sign Language", to the now preferred "Flemish Sign Language" on the Flemish side, and to "French Belgian Sign Language" or "Walloon Sign Language" on the other.

On 26 April 2006, the Flemish Parliament unanimously recognised the Flemish Sign Language as a language in Flanders.[3] The decree consists of three major parts:

The Flemish Sign Language is recognised as a language in the Flemish Community, including the Brussels-Capital Region.
Advisory committee
An advisory committee on the Flemish Sign Language is instated, with a maximum of fifteen members, half of which have to be deaf. Advise can be requested by the Flemish Government or the Flemish Parliament, but the committee can also formulate advises autonomously.
Knowledge and information centre
The decree arranges the recognition of a knowledge and information centre which has to: coordinate and stimulate linguistic research, support the further development of VGT, develop educational tools for use in teaching VGT and be the first point of contact.


Since December 2012, the VRT news broadcast is available in the Flemish Sign Language.[4]

The Flemish Parliament had sign language interpreters for the parliamentary debates while Helga Stevens, who is deaf, was member of the parliament.


  1. Flemish Sign Language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Vlaamse Gebarentaal". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Decreet houdende de erkenning van de Vlaamse Gebarentaal
  4. Het journaal: Vlaamse Gebarentaal

Some of the major reference works for Flemish Sign Language are:

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