Wednesday, November 03, 2010

British Sign Language

The loss of our eyesight or our hearing is something most of us only give a cursory thought towards. How would I cope if I was deaf? What would it be like never being able to listen to music? Horrible, we think to ourselves and then we quickly move on, possibly hitting the shuffle function on our iPods with a slightly more piquant sense of gratitude.

Bizarre that the first thing we think about is the loss of music from our lives rather than the question of how the hell we would communicate with other people and the outside world. Maybe because we take our ability to talk so much for granted?

I’m almost ashamed to say that it has taken a writing project to make me bend my thoughts more seriously towards these issues. I’m 25,000 words into my second novel and one of the supporting characters is deaf. The main character has a disabling stutter and hence hates speaking. Through learning sign language though he is able to finally express himself and embark on a more fulfilling lifestyle. Yes, it is something of a rom/com for those of you that are interested but also, hopefully, a gritty piece of social commentary. Anyway, I’m not here to big up the novel. I’ll save that for when it’s finished.

The point is I quickly realized that to write effectively and realistically about Deaf Culture I needed to embark on some serious research. I bought books. I contacted someone at the Deaf Arts Network who very kindly spent weeks answering all of my (no doubt very crass) questions and supplying me with real life anecdotes – Lisa, if you are reading, a big thank you once again. Eventually I realized that to make the deaf character real and believable – not to mention her dialogues with the main character – I would need to learn sign language myself.

Because it is a complete language in itself with its own sense of dialogue and its own idiosyncratic mechanics. It can’t be replicated by guesswork; you have to know it.

Thankfully the local FE College here in Leamington offers the Level 1 course. Depressingly it is very expensive. £450. Level 2 is over £600 and then there is Level 3 and 4. But that’s jumping the gun. I nearly abandoned the idea there and then as there was no way I could afford the best part of £500 on an evening course. But help comes from surprising sources sometimes and my employer stepped up to the plate and is funding Level 1 for me; the idea being that it will be useful for the local authority here to have an employee who can communicate [albeit at a very basic level] with any deaf customers.

I started the course about 6 weeks ago. Without fail I am exhausted before I even get there – I’m not a night person – but every Tuesday I drag myself up to the college and try to make myself as receptive as my lazy brain will allow. And without fail I leave 2 hours later buoyant and buzzing and bouncing with the sheer exhilaration of it all.

It is a wonderful course and a beautiful language to learn. It is as fluid, rich, dynamic, intriguing, and expressive as any spoken voiced language. I’d even venture to say it is more expressive. It has its own set of pictorial semantics which are often as funny as they are clever. There is something organic and interconnected about the language too. The sign for ‘milk’ for example is redolent of milking a cow. Every sign is pregnant with meaning and has an ingenious grace to it that makes you want to master every word and phrase.

And it’s easy to learn. Amazingly easy. The entire class had mastered the finger-spelling alphabet within the first hour. There is something instinctive about it. And now armed with those few rude basics you can at last communicate and make your point known.

So it amazes me that the basics of sign language aren’t taught at all schools. Just the alphabet and a few signs would hardly over burden the current curriculum. The benefits would be enormous both to the Deaf Community and to the hearing community, both in terms of increased accessibility for the former and inclusiveness for both. Because it was not until I embarked on this research that I realized what a closed culture Deafness is. It is very enclosed and self contained. Not because Deaf people want to be separate but because if no-one else speaks your language you have no choice but to be separate and a world apart.

And given that we all share the world and are all human, that seems a very great shame.

Not being able to hear music is actually the smallest loss that Deafness bestows upon you. Not having the ability or the opportunity to make yourself ‘heard’ is far, far worse and deeply, hurtfully isolating. And yet the remedy is so simple.

Come on, Education Minister; put sign language onto our school curriculum! Or for those of you that understandably can’t wait for that great day or are past school attendance age... I know a great way for you to put £450 to very good use. I guarantee you won’t regret it.



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47 comments:

Clippy Mat said...

Very well said Steve. (You write so well.) I have learned a little about the deaf culture through my job as we have a literacy program for adults who are deaf. I've learned a little ASL but would love to learn more and I agree it's quite easy and very interesting. I wish that ASL and BSL were the same tho'....
It should be taught to children. They love to learn it. I taught my grandchildren basic signs whent they were babies for milk, more, please, thank you, sorry etc and they used these while their oral language skills were developing. Go home and use it and teach your children too. Spread the word. :-))

Trish @ Mum's Gone to... said...

Every year I accompany the Year 2 children from my son's former primary school and take them to the National Centre for Deafblindness in Peterborough. It's a fascinating place: the building itself is so cleverly designed with rooms leading off from one circular corridor. The children are taught the alphabet in sign language and, as you say, pick it up so easily.

I've been struggling with my own hearing over recent weeks - very blocked, deaf in one ear, and it is so frustrating and scary at times. I can't even sing at the moment, which I normally love to do, as it sounds so odd (probably always did!!). So I think what you're doing is brilliant.

Steve said...

Clippy Mat: every week when I come home I have to teach my wife all the new signs I have learnt; it's a great way to help them sink a little further into my brain too. But you're right - we should teach the kids, certainly the alphabet if nothing else!

Trish: sorry to hear about your hearing; do hope it's only temporary. So glad to hear that some schools are already teaching the finger-spelling alphabet - it is so intuitive I really believe that anybody could pick it up very quickly indeed.

Heather said...

Fantastic post Steve! I am impressed with your devotion to the novel in learning a whole new language and agree whole heartedly, wouldn't it be wonderful if this were taught in school?

Steve said...

Heather: thank you. It's such a cool way to communicate - I think kids (and adults) would love it; and the uses for it are unlimited and benefit everybody. It's a brilliant skill to acquire.

the fly in the web said...

Thank you for that inspiring post...now I'm off to see what I can find out about the origins of the 'language'.

Michelle Twin Mum said...

Yes it would be fab for our children to learn this language at school, especially when you say it is very easy to pick up. I can see you have been working very hard to learn all the necessary for yoru novel. I remember a conversation with one of our equality officers at work and her teling me that is it very important to be able to differentiate when to use deaf and when to use Deaf!

Mich x

Steve said...

The fly in the web: I wish you very happy hunting!

Michelle: yes, there are certain rules you have to follow. Just hope I've got it right in my post! ;-)

Kelloggsville said...

We teach our Brownies how to sign their own name and about lip reading as a part of one of our badges but it isn't enough. The schools could have a field day with this if they choose to. They squeeze in enough 'for charity' days that if it weren't for the money sent in would seem like a complete waste of educational time.

Steve said...

Kelloggsville: another name for the petition - marvellous!

Rol said...

I'm very impressed by your diligent and detailed research, Steve. Really.

That's my serious, non-sarcastic comment for the month.

Steve said...

Rol: thank you. I shall treasure it for always.

Suburbia said...

I have always wanted to sign. My Granny taught me to finger spell when I was little.

Great that you have the opportunity, I wish the courses were cheaper, looked at it here a few years ago and realised, like you, how prohibitive the cost was.

Good luck with it

Can't wait to read your book :-)

Gorilla Bananas said...

This may seem like a facetious question, but do the rude hand-gestures used by people who can hear mean the same thing in sign language?

Mark said...

My grandfather was deaf and we used a rudimentary sign language. Truth be told, I've forgotten most of it, which I regret now.

Steve said...

Suburbia: thank you. The cost is prohibitive - very. Level 2 is £600 plus and I doubt very much my employer's budget will stretch that far; not in light of the current financial situation. I'll have to cross that bridge when I come to it.

Gorilla Bananas: I suspect so and I daresay there are other signs as well that are as rich and as rude as any vocalization that you or I may make. Sadly, we have not reached the part of the course yet that covers those kinds of "greetings".

Mark: that is a shame. But it shows a natural facility to learn sign language!

Suzanne said...

Brilliant, passionate post.
My mum taught me the finger spelling alphabet when I was about six, and it is amazing how quickly you can pick it up, and how it has stayed with me ( and my memory is pants).
I think that teaching this in schools would be a great idea.
Really gald you are motivated and good luck with your book.

libby said...

Very well written Steve..and keep up the good work. I began a course many years ago but was unable to keep at it for various reasons...and I have an Auntie who taught me some signs that I remember still...not many though. My sister taught her (hearing) daughter some signs when she was a baby, and yes the milk one was one of the first...babies are able to communicate with us..we just need to give them the tools to do it.

LöstJimmy said...

First class post Steve, and once again full marks to you for studying the language!
A worthy skill and a very important one

Steve said...

Suzanne: the alphabet is really ingenious and stays with you once you've learnt it too. I taught myself that part from a book before I began the course and it's really stood me in good stead.

Libby: thank you. I'd really love to get Level 2 under my belt if possible but I think the money side of it is going to be a bit of a bar. Still, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it!

LöstJimmy: thank you. It's a lovely skill to have and one to be proud of!

Very Bored in Catalunya said...

Steve - is sign language a universal language or do different countries have their own variations? I've always wondered that.

It's a great thing you're doing, are you considering using it in some way after you've finished your novel?

Steve said...

Very Bored in Catalunya: not only are there national variations but there are also regional "accents" - different signs for the same words; different ways of abbreviating them. It's a very real language. As for further application... I'd love to go on and do all the levels and maybe become a Deaf interpreter. It would be far more interesting than my current job and would involve a bit of travel. However, that's just a pipedream at the moment!

Tenon_Saw said...

Hold on there: SECOND novel? Did I miss something? You were going to tinker with your first one and then e-mail it out for a select few to read. Did you abandon that plan?

Steve said...

Tenon_Saw: it has been tinkered and it's been sent out to a couple of agents. Would you like a copy? Or would you like a preview of my new one (currently 4 chapters). ;-)

Being Me said...

Standing and applauding. Having sign language on the school curriculum would actually not only help hearing-impaired members of the community, it would also benefit non-verbal kids (think autism and disabilities that make communication difficult/impossible). A friend has ensured her family and their close friends knows the basic signs so they can help their young son communicate and feel heard/less frustrated after he was diagnosed with autism at 2 yrs old. I think of kids like him who would be so much better off out in the world if more of us (and his peers) could understand him and he them, via sign language.

Owen said...

Steve, you never cease to amaze.

I can testify, I almost never read blogs which are text only, or the majority in text, I just don't have the time, and there are so many things I want to keep reading, so I tend to focus alot more on photo blogs... but from the very first time I stumbled on your blog, I was thoroughly impressed with your writing skills... the post about those barbarous writers of spam mails from Africa with fraudulent offers of millions of dollars... you had me rolling on the floor. Ever since, you never disappoint, whatever the subject. So here's wishing you all success with the first and second books, I can only imagine that an agent somewhere is going to recognize damn good writing when he or she sees it, as I can't imagine it is any worse than what is in these pages. And am thoroughly impressed with the efforts you are making to gain signing fluency. Carpe diem !

Steve said...

Being Me: absolutely - which is a subject my novel covers; how sign language enables someone who is non verbal to communicate. The benefits to teaching sign language are endless and there are no drawbacks at all.

Owen: wow. High praise indeed. I don't know what to say - except thank you for your constant generosity whenever you honour my blog with a visit.

TheUndertaker said...

Never thought about it at all (learning to sign) so good on ya mate! But the way my tinnitus is going, I reckon I might have to learn
Second novel, huh? Impressive. I have only managed 2 days out of NaNos 4 so far

Steve said...

TheUndertaker: I admire anyone that gives NaNos a go. I did it last year but cheated as my first novel was all but finished anyway. It's a great idea but I have my own long established writing regime and see no reason to mess with something that isn't broken! Good luck!

Sarah said...

A thought-provoking post, Steve. Funnily enough, motorway service stations here in France have started selling 'essentials' plastic-coated pamphlets and they have one on sign language.

I nearly bought one for my boys but was in a hurry so had to dash out. Next time I see one I'll get it as a start. My son was talking about sign language recently, I think he may have classmates who are hard of hearing.

rummuser said...

You have inspired me. My father is hard of hearing and I know how frustrating it is for him, but for him it is perhaps too late to learn, but I think that I will.

Steve said...

Sarah: it's really positive that information of this kind is around and it sounds like sign language is on people's consciousness more than we realize it is.

Rummuser: if I have only inpsired one person to look further into sign language the post will have been more than worth it.

lunarossa said...

Hi Steve, I join all the previous comments to congratulate you for your dedication to your novel and learning the sign language to be more accurate. My daughter has been in class with a deaf boy since reception and all the kids have been taught sign language since. It's amazing. She tried to "speak" to an Italian deaf girl last year but unfortunately it didn't work. Keep on the good work. With regard to your first novel, can I buy it off you? I'm an avid reader and always looking for something new and good...Ciao. A.

Steve said...

Lunarossa: sadly there is no universal sigh language (I don't think) - they are as nationalistic as verbal languages. As for the novel, I'd be happy to email you a digital copy for free though must warn you it is a grim read - a very adult, psychological horror. Not a pleasant journey. The new one I'm writing now is much lighter and nicer!

missbehaving said...

How brilliant!! I just about jumped for joy to hear your employer is funding level one!!

They do actually learn some sign language in schools here, around 3rd grade I think, the finger alphabet, greetings etc , they visit a centre for the deaf and practice their skills, and the graduating class always do at least one song with signs ( it's called 'shua'). there isn't really eny follow through though, it's just meant to be covered in the curriculum so it is, but it's better than nothing I suppose.
I agree, it should be taught in schools along with a lot of other things that celebrate diversity, rather than a lot of the regular useless crap they learn.

Steve said...

MissBehaving: I can feel the beginnings of an international movement here!

Fran said...

What a good idea. And they'd probably love learning it, too. You're making the idea of learning BSL more and more attractive, and I may just get round to it.

The Sagittarian said...

Great idea Steve, my youngest daughter has learnt some basic sign language (the offical stuff, not the "oi, you" version) and we use it sometimes if the place we're in is too noisy. At work I do come across some deaf workers and have a sign language health & safety booklet which I find useful too. Good for you!

Steve said...

Fran: it is a fantastic course, a fantastic language and a fantastic skill to possess. I can't big it up anymore than that.

Amanda: I'm really chuffed at how many people commenting on this post have some familiarity with sign language - it's very, very encouraging and so positive for Deaf communities everywhere.

Organic Motherhood with Cool Whip said...

My best friend grew up with 2 deaf parents and she has taught me a lot about deaf culture. Spending time with her family always makes me feel like I need to learn more sign language. It really is such a fantastic language. I'm impressed by the work you've done to make your book realistic and even more impressed by your sincere interest in sign language and deaf culture. This is a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing what you've learned with all of us.

London City Mum said...

Do you know I am inspired to take this up as well? Had never even considered a course in sign language... and my Italian background stands me in good stead as I already have many hand actions to accompany my conversations.

LCM x

Steve said...

Organic Motherhood with Cool Whip: thank you - and the nice thing is I could sign that if I wanted to.

LCM: hey, you're already half way there! ;-)

vegemitevix said...

I'm fascinated by sign language, and love learning new languages of any kind. I really should get my act together and look into taking a class and learning some. Thanks for publicising the issue Steve. Can't wait to read the book!

Steve said...

Vegemitevix: thank you... I'm hoping to have the book finished within the next 18 months but that's something of a guestimate. My first novel took 3 years when I'd imagined 2!

-eve- said...

very interesting. ok, i know i'd never put a deaf character into any novel I was writing. very very difficult.:-) you're right, it's going to take some research (and possibly, some days of pretending to be deaf and trying out what it feels) to get the character and the story just right :-). good thing over here, the deaf are educated, so we communicate by writing (and even then, the specialists usually can't be bothered to take the time to write, so they end up just being seen by us house officers)

Steve said...

Eve: it's not as difficult as you might think! I don't plan on describing every sign she makes just quoting her as I would everyone else. The grammar is slightly different in sign language other than that is just as expressive as verbal communication.

misssy m said...

Bloody hell- I am catching up with your posts and i have to say that idea of putting sign language in the curriculum is ace. My dad is going deaf and I fear there's going to be a point in the years to come when he really isn't able to hear much. You've really made me think.