Learning British sign language as a linguist

By Emily Ball

During the summer of 2020, I got a job in retail in an attempt to occupy myself following the cancellation of A-Levels during lockdown. The work I did was relatively uninspiring, though surprisingly it led to me coming to university with a new passion, completely unrelated to stacking shelves (as my job description had outlined).

As a linguist studying German and Italian ab initio, communication is essential to my degree. From when my mum tried to teach me the remaining German she knows from studying ‘O-levels’ (as she continues to call them) to the Year 8 French trip when I printed out a list of phrases, I have been eager to be able to talk with new people. Yet, through serving and coming into contact with a number of deaf and hard-of-hearing people, my perception of communication began to shift.

Initially, the approach I took was rudimentary at best, with the customer and I writing down what we wanted to say on the back of receipts, pointing, and gesturing, but the intent and intrigue were definitely beginning to grow. So much so, that when moving to Durham for university in September, upon seeing the list of societies, I immediately sought out if there was a British Sign Language society. I enrolled immediately and expressed my interest in partaking in the Level 1 lessons.

There is something highly rewarding about learning a language which, in its nature, promotes the ability to accommodate for hard-of-hearing or deaf individuals.

My usual language learning would consist of learning the complex grammatical structures German boasts or practising Italian pronunciation and conjugation, so when faced with a language that has no spoken or written content I initially felt overwhelmed. Instead, I was learning about the importance of facial expressions, knowing left from right when signing, and how to speak a language with no real grammatical structures.

I sat my Sign Language Level 1 exams at the end of April, and the revision was like nothing I’d ever done before. The exam itself was divided into three sections: a presentation, a conversation, and a test of comprehension. This was not, however, the type of exam you could make flashcards or Quizlet sets for, as studying a language may usually entail. Instead, it relied upon practising conversation with fellow classmates, watching over lessons, and attempting past papers. All whilst not speaking a word.

Despite the clear structural differences of the languages for my degree and British Sign Language, similarities could be found. For instance, through learning Sign Language in the North East, I have been exposed to and taught the Durham variant of the language. Whilst I was aware of the fact that Sign Language is used differently in various nations, such as ASL being spoken in America, I was unaware that Sign Language differs throughout the U.K. What I am taught acts almost as a dialect, like that which I am taught to be aware of when speaking German or Italian. Learning BSL is also accompanied by a new level of cultural awareness, namely of Deaf Culture, in which etiquette, poetry, drama, and jokes all exist, like with any other language.

Through serving and coming into contact with a number of deaf and hard-of-hearing people, my perception of communication began to shift.

Since learning Sign Language, I like to think that my communication skills have generally improved, particularly through taking the expressive nature of the language and applying it to the other languages I speak. Through being so expressive, BSL is also highly enjoyable to learn, seen in the literal nature of some signs, particularly those regarding weather. This means that during lessons or conversation, you can’t help but smile.

Whilst I am far from fluent, there is something highly rewarding about learning a language which, in its nature, promotes the ability to accommodate for hard-of-hearing or deaf individuals.

Photo: Jo Hilton via Unsplash

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