Is Lhasa Tibetan Sign Language emerging, endangered, or both?

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This article offers the first overview of the recent emergence of Tibetan Sign Language (TibSL) in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), China. Drawing on short anthropological fieldwork, in 2007 and 2014, with people and organisations involved in the formalisation and promotion of TibSL, the author discusses her findings within the nine-fold UNESCO model for assessing linguistic vitality and endangerment. She follows the adaptation of this model to assess signed languages by the Institute of Sign Languages and Deaf Studies (iSLanDS) at the University of Central Lancashire. The appraisal shows that TibSL appears to be between “severely” and “definitely” endangered, adding to the extant studies on the widespread phenomenon of sign language endangerment. Possible future influences and developments regarding the vitality and use of TibSL in Central Tibet and across the Tibetan plateau are then discussed and certain additions, not considered within the existing assessment model, suggested. In concluding, the article places the situation of TibSL within the wider circumstances of minority (sign) languages in China, Chinese Sign Language (CSL), and the post-2008 movement to promote and use “pure Tibetan language”.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)113-145
Number of pages33
JournalInternational Journal for the Sociology of Language
Issue number245
Early online date2 May 2017
Publication statusPublished - 24 May 2017


  • Tibetan Sign Language (TibSL)
  • deaf Tibetans
  • sign language vitality and endangerment assessment
  • Tibet Deaf Association (TDA)
  • Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)
  • China


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