Learn British Sign Language as a Linguist – Palatinate


By Emily Ball

In the summer of 2020, I landed a job in retail to try and keep myself busy following the cancellation of A-Levels during lockdown. The work I did was relatively uninspiring, although surprisingly it led me to come to college with a new passion, unrelated to stacking shelves (like my job description l ‘had described).

As a linguist studying German and Italian ab initio, communication is essential for my degree. From the time my mom tried to teach me the rest of the German she knows by studying “O levels” (as she continues to call them) to the grade 8 French trip where I printed out a list of phrases, I was eager to be able to speak with new people. Yet as I served and came into contact with a number of deaf and hard of hearing people, my perception of communication began to change.

Initially the approach I took was rudimentary at best, the client and I would write what we wanted to say on the back of receipts, pointing fingers and gesturing, but the intention and intrigue was definitely starting to grow. So much so that when I moved to Durham for college in September, seeing the list of companies, I immediately looked to see if there was a British Sign Language company. I registered immediately and expressed my interest in attending the Level 1 courses.

There is something very rewarding about learning a language that by its nature promotes the ability to cope with people who are hard of hearing or deaf.

My usual language learning would consist of learning the complex grammatical structures that German boasts of or practicing Italian pronunciation and conjugation, so faced with a language that has no spoken or written content, I first got to felt overwhelmed. Instead, I learned the importance of facial expressions, knowing left-to-right when signing and how to speak a language without real grammatical structure.

I took my level 1 sign language exams at the end of April and the revision was unlike anything I had done before. The exam itself was divided into three sections: a presentation, a conversation and a comprehension test. However, this was not the type of exam you could create flashcards or quiz sets for, as studying a language can usually entail. Instead, he relied on practicing conversing with classmates, supervising classes, and attempting old homework. All without saying a word.

Despite the clear structural differences between the languages ​​of my degree and British Sign Language, similarities could be found. For example, while learning sign language in the North East, I was exposed and taught the Durham variant of the language. While I was aware that sign language is used differently in various countries like the ASL spoken in America, I was not aware that sign language differs across the UK. What I am taught acts almost like a dialect, like the one I am. learned to be aware by speaking German or Italian. Learning BSL also comes with a new level of cultural awareness, namely deaf culture, in which etiquette, poetry, drama and jokes exist, as with any other language. .

As I served and came into contact with a number of deaf and hard of hearing people, my perception of communication began to change.

Since learning sign language, I like to think my communication skills have generally improved, especially taking the expressive nature of the language and applying it to other languages ​​I speak. By being so expressive, BSL is also very pleasant to learn, given the literal nature of some signs, especially those relating to the weather. This means that during class or conversation, you can’t help but smile.

Although I am far from being fluent, there is something very rewarding about learning a language which by its nature promotes the ability to adapt to people who are hard of hearing or deaf.

Photo: Jo Hilton via Unsplash

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