Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Why sign?

In my experience, BSL (British Sign Language) is one of the few languages that very quickly discounted, even by linguists themselves. Depressingly often I hear "Is it even a language?", something which would never be said about other, less common languages, or alternatively "It's just charades, isn't it?".

The vocabulary and grammar of the languages are different, and not just intelligent miming as some people (who have never studied a sign language) might think. Many sign languages are mutually unintelligible, meaning that someone using American Sign Language would not understand someone using British Sign Language, even though the spoken languages (English) would be the same.

I got the opportunity to study BSL at evening classes for two years, and even though it entailed a lot of travelling and hard work, I loved it! I am convinced that it is the most useful language to learn in the UK. But why?

Students learning MFL in school often ask "But what's the point of Spanish? I will never meet a Spaniard in my life", but we are all likely to meet a BSL user, whether they are deaf or find BSL easier than English for another reason. For example some children who struggle to communicate or who have cognitive impairments learn a version of BSL at school, and an estimated 15% of the population is deaf or hard of hearing.

Shockingly, it's estimated that there is only 1 BSL-English interpreter for every 275 BSL users, meaning that if you work with the public and need to communicate with someone who relies on sign language, chances are that they will struggle to get an interpreter and have to find another method, or give up their independence by relying on family members to organise things for them. Just a basic knowledge of BSL would help enormously in these situations and should really be considered if you are working with the public.

From a linguistic perspective, I have found that the more I learn, the more I am amazed. Anyone who learns a complex case-based language like Latin or Russian will be surprised at how different it is to English, but learning BSL is a totally new experience. Instead of learning verb and adjectival endings, you learn to concentrate on spatial agreement and handshapes. Verbs have no tenses, as in Chinese, but the time is instead shown by how far forward it happens in the space you're signing in, and intensifiers like "very" are shown by facial expression.

There are a number of sites where you can have a go at some basic British Sign Language, for example the website British Sign. There are also courses at many regional colleges for a reasonable fee, which lead to a recognised qualification and can help if you are considering signing as a career. For me, BSL is a wonderful hobby which has allowed me to meet people in the Deaf community who I would never have met normally, and it has given me awareness of issues not ordinarily given thought in mainstream society.

To learn more, why not look at Deaf blog The Limping Chicken or watch the BBC's programme See Hear, and have a go at signing yourself!

For those who are interested in Conlangs (constructed languages) there are even examples of artificial sign languages such as Alplai Sign Language, and of course there are many more natural sign languages across the world, all with their own rich culture and linguistic features.

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