British Sign Language – the culture that isn’t being spoken about

by Emma Rayers

When learning a foreign language, it is always said that understanding the culture is just as, if not more, important than learning the language itself. However, it is not particularly well known that this applies to sign languages too.

BSL (British Sign Language) was only recognised in the UK as an official minority language in 2003, despite people having been signing here for over 400 years. There was particular opposition to signing in the 20th century, which persisted until the 1970s. During this period, in order to be able to communicate, children in schools were forced to finger spell (the process of spelling out words letter by letter using your hands) and lip read, rather than being taught to sign.

People often think that BSL is just a signed version of spoken English; however, this is not the case. It is a language in its own right and has a different grammar system to spoken English (for example what is your name would be signed as “your – name – what”). It also has dialects just like any spoken language, meaning that there are different signs for things depending on where you come from.

Many people in the Deaf community see deafness as a difference in the way the world is experienced, rather than a disability. Therefore, it can be particularly harmful to see deafness as something that needs to be cured as portrayed in the film ‘The End’ (2011). Instead, deafness is seen as something to be celebrated and recognised in its uniqueness.

Deaf Culture

Culture is often about history or art, and deaf people have contributed and still do contribute to the world just as much as their hearing counterparts. Helen Keller, an author, political activist, and lecturer, is perhaps one of the most famous deaf-blind people. The founder of the American Girl Scouts, Juliette Low, was also deaf. There is also the 1995 Miss America, Heather Whitestone, who lost her hearing when she was just 18 months old. All of these people have had a massive influence in both the hearing and the Deaf communities.

However, there is also a separate Deaf culture. There are TV programmes for example, Dot’s life, which is about the life of the deaf poet, playwright, and activist Dorothy Mills. There are also dance groups for the Deaf community, like the one run by Chris Fonesca that was featured on BBC 3 last year. He sees this as a vital way to allow young deaf people to learn to dance, the same as anyone else.

Meeting up with people who share common interests is an aspect of both Deaf and hearing culture. It is vital for deaf people to be able to build relationships, as unfortunately many feel isolated due to the lack of people who are able to communicate with them. Carol Tiger, who is deaf and teaches BSL, described how Deaf culture means a lot to her, because she always communicates in BSL and loves learning about Deaf history.

There are also sign nicknames which are given to people by the Deaf community. Some of them are logical, for example “rose” could be the sign for Rosie. Alternatively, others have stories behind them, like Sophie whose sign name is ‘survey’, as that’s what she appears to be saying when she mouths her name.

With the increasing publicity surrounding BSL and deafness, we can only hope that an increasing awareness and appreciation for Deaf culture will follow.

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