Russian Sign Language

Russian Sign Language is the sign language of the Deaf community in Russia and Tajikistan, and possibly in neighboring countries such as Moldova and Georgia. (See also Lithuanian Sign Language, Mongolian Sign Language and Ukrainian Sign Language, all of which may be dialects of the same basic language.) Russian Sign has a grammar unlike the (spoken or written) Russian language, with much stricter word order and word formation rules. Russian Sign Language belongs to the French Sign Language family. Vocabulary from Austrian Sign Language also heavily influences Russian Sign Language.

Russian Sign Language
Русский Жестовый Язык
Russkii Zhestovyi Yazyk
Russkij Žestovyj Âzyk
Native toRussia, Tajikistan, Moldova, Georgia
Native speakers
120,000 in Russia (2010 census)[1]
French Sign
Language codes
ISO 639-3Either:
rsl  Russian Sign Language
vsi  Moldovan Sign Language

Russian Sign Language (РЖЯ) has its own grammar and is used by Deaf Russians in everyday communication. However, there is a "signed Russian" which is mainly used in official communications, such as sign language lectures at universities, conference papers, and in the past it was used on television in interpreted news programs.


RSL is thought to have started ca. 1806, when a school for the deaf was opened at Pavlovsk near St. Petersburg. It was exported to Bulgaria in 1920, where it has become a separate language (Bulgarian Sign Language) rather than a dialect of Russian Sign Language, though Russian Sign Language is also used there.

The Moscow Bilingual School for the Deaf, which uses Russian Sign Language in classrooms, was opened in 1992.

Much of the early research on Russian Sign Language was done by Galina Lazarevna Zaitseva, who wrote her 1969 PhD thesis on spatial relationships in Russian Sign Language, and in 1992 devised the now standard term for Russian Sign Language "Russkii Zhestovyi Yazyk" (Russian: Русский Жестовый Язык). Ongoing research into the language takes place at the Centre for Deaf Studies in Moscow.

Regional variation

Regional variation of Russian Sign appears to be relatively wide, comparable to the regional variants within Polish Sign Language or Estonian Sign Language, but greater than a more homogeneous ASL. One study reported lexical similarity between two Russian signers of 70–80%, in the same range as between those two signers and signers from Ukraine and Moldova, but due to the limited sample stopped short of drawing any conclusions as to whether they constituted the same or different languages.[3]

National status and societal attitudes

Active status of Russian sign language is as follows:

  1. The Russian Federation provides services for sign language for rehabilitation measures.
  2. The current status of Russian Sign Language is extremely low. According to article 14 of the Russian Federal Law, entitled "Social protection of the disabled in the Russian Federation", sign language is recognized as a means of interpersonal communication. Although it is recognized, there is no state support, despite Articles 3, 5, 14, and 19 of the Russian Federal Law, which claim to provide necessary services to the deaf.[4]

There are several problems concerning the study and application of sign language in Russia, which Valery Nikitich Rukhledev, President of the All-Russian Society of the Deaf[5] cited:

  1. The instruction of sign language interpreters is an old, long-established program, and they study some gestures, which have long fallen into disuse or have changed in meaning or form. Because of this, interpreters have difficulty understanding the deaf, who try to use their services.
  2. Until 1990, the sign language interpreter trade unions had 5,500 translators, of whom 1,000 worked in the system of our organization. Now, thanks to the federal target program "Social Support of Disabled," we manage to keep translators at 800. But the shortage of interpreters remains at about 5,000 people.
  3. Today, the Russian Federation only trains sign language interpreters with the issuance of state diplomas from the inter-regional center for the medical rehabilitation of persons with hearing disabilities center in St. Petersburg. Eliminating the existing deficit of sign language interpreters in a country like Russia is impossible with only one training center. It is necessary to train more specialists and to have them in distant regions of the country.

However, there is hope that the situation can change. On April 4, 2009 at the Russian Council on The Disabled, President Dmitry Medvedev discussed the issue of the status of sign language in Russia. In his closing remarks, the President of the Russian Federation expressed his opinion:[5]

"There is indeed, a distinct lack of sign language translators. This level of need necessitates changes. There are considerations and proposals for implementation to resolve the need of training sign language interpreters to provide translation services. But I agree with what has been said: it is necessary to reconsider the preparation of the interpreters at the Ministry of Education Institutions and universities. These teachers should be prepared in virtually every federal district, because we have a huge country and it is impossible to imagine having all sign language interpreters trained in Moscow, for example, and this is the only way we can solve this problem. I am glad that the State Duma supported the initiatives of the President, so we will continue to work in the same unity, in which we have previously worked to resolve this issue."

Use in films

See also


  1. Russian Census 2010
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Russian Sign". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Bickford, 2005. The Signed Languages of Eastern Europe
  4. Valentin Lebedev. In search of a common language (Russian)
  5. text/appears/2009/04/214924.shtml verbatim record of the meeting of the Council for the Disabled

Further reading

  • Grenoble, Lenore. 1992. An Overview of Russian Sign Language. Sign Language Studies No. 77: 321-38.
  • Kimmelman, Vadim. 2009. Parts of speech in Russian Sign Language: The role of iconicity and economy. Sign Language & Linguistics 12.2:161-186.
  • Kimmelman, Vadim . 2012. Word Order in Russian Sign Language. Sign Language Studies Vol. 12.3: 414-445.
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