Sign Languages

Next week is Deaf Awareness Week. I have written before about being deaf aware, and so this week I decided to write about sign languages.

Many people believe that there is one universal sign language used by deaf people all over the world, but this is not the case. Different countries have different sign languages which are mutually unintelligible. French Sign Language is as different from British Sign Language as French is from English.

Just as spoken languages belong to families – eg the Romance family which includes French, Spanish and Italian, and the Germanic family which includes German, Dutch and Swedish – so do sign languages. French Sign Language is related to American Sign Language; British sign language is related to Australian Sign Language.

Another common misconception is that British Sign Language (BSL) is the same as Sign Supported English (SSE).  This is not true…..

BSL is a language in its own right, with a rich vocabulary. There is no one-word-to-one-sign relationship: some words need more than one sign to explain, and some signs can convey concepts which would require a whole sentence in English.  Sign Supported English is, as it sounds, spoken English with accompanying signs. SSE also has signs to indicate prefixes and suffixes. For example, “I will walk to the shops” in BSL would be three signs – shops me walk – whereas in SSE it would be 6 signs – one for each word.

If you fancy having a go at learning BSL, you have lots of options. Many Adult Education Centres offer introductory level up to at least level 3, and there are also lots of private tuition companies. You can’t beat face-to-face learning, but if you really want to learn from your own home you could look for Skype sessions or look at websites such as spreadthesign where you can learn some words.

Another way to learn a few signs would be to purchase a pack of Flashsticks and learn a few each day. It wouldn’t help you to speak fluently, and you wouldn’t learn any grammar, but it would help you to use Sign Supported English.

Whichever route you choose, it’s definitely worth learning some. It’s an extra skill to show off to potential employers, and it could open up a whole new circle of friends to you.

Learn to Sign Week

bsl booksThis week is Learn to Sign Week.

I spent 3 years learning BSL in Adult Education classes, and I’m lucky to work in an environment where I use it regularly, so my sign language is competent (although I need to brush up on my receptive skills), but if you don’t sign at all – where do you start?

If you want to learn to sign fluently, your best bet is to enrol on a BSL Level 1 course, but if you just want a few basics there are plenty of options available to you.

A useful first step is to learn fingerspelling. If you have children they may well have learnt it at school, or at Brownies or Scouts, so they may be able to teach you. If not you will find a free download of both left and right-handed fingerspelling at Deaf Books.

After this you could learn a few greetings in BSL – there are various YouTube videos you could watch: Good Morning, Please and thank you, and a few more greetings/introductory conversation.

A BSL dictionary is a great investment, and this one is ideal for beginners.

My last suggestion is for those of you on Twitter – you could follow @BritishSignBSL for a new sign every few days.

If you feel confident after these basics, why not add your support to the Life and Deaf “Good morning” campaign.

Happy signing !

Deaf Awareness Week – What Can You Do?

Today is the last day of Deaf Awareness Week 2013, so it’s time to look at how you can be more Deaf aware.

First of all, to gain the attention of a deaf person, tap them lightly on the shoulder and then wait for them to look at you. If you need to gain the attention of a roomful of deaf people, flash the lights, and wait for them to look at you.

That’s great. You’ve got their attention. Now what?

Contrary to popular misconception, not all deaf people can lipread. Lipreading is a skill, and it’s actually incredibly difficult. Stand in front of a mirror and say, “cot dot hot lot not”. Can you tell the difference between them? It’s not easy is it? Now imagine that you are trying to follow a whole conversation just by watching someone’s lips. Some Deaf people I know are very good at it – my old BSL teacher was so good she could lipread from the side! – but others find it difficult or impossible, so don’t assume that they can. If you know that the person you are talking to can lipread, make it easier for them. Always stand in good light. Never stand with your back to a window as this puts your whole face in shadow and makes it difficult to distinguish your features.

Be aware that not all deaf people can read or write. Of course these skills are taught in schools, but they are not easy to learn.  For most of us, we learn our first language purely by being exposed to it. We hear our parents and wider family speaking it. We hear it on the TV or radio. We hear it spoken in shops when our parents take us out in prams or pushchairs. Imagine if you hadn’t had that exposure. Imagine if you had to learn to read without having any idea what sounds the letters made. Would you have found it so easy?

For many Deaf people, English is not even their first language – those born into Deaf families may have BSL as their first language. Think about what your school life would have been like if your parents spoke English, and then when you went to school your teachers spoke only Chinese, and all your books were written in Chinese. It’s really not surprising that some deaf children leave school without being able to read or write.

In short, don’t assume that you can communicate with a deaf person by speaking slowly for them to lipread, or by writing things down.

So, what can you do?  How about learning some BSL? Many adult education centres offer a short (about 6 weeks) introductory course for just a few pounds, where you will learn the basics such as fingerspelling,numbers and introducing yourself. You could also follow @BritishSignBSL  on Twitter to learn one new sign a day.  Once you have a few signs under your belt, have a go, and don’t be afraid to mime things to get your point across.