Do you know any sign language? If there’s no opportunity at school, most people don’t get to learn it. The most important reason to learn to sign is of course to communicate with D/deaf people. As a bonus, signing helps hearing people to express themselves more freely and clearly.
It’s national Sign Language Week this week (March 2017). British Sign Language is used by the UK deaf community of around 151,000 people and hopefully this special week will raise public awareness of BSL. The UK government has officially recognized it as a language, but hasn’t yet given it full legal status. Just like other languages, the basics of BSL could be taught at primary school and it could even be offered as a subject for GCSE.
Facial expression and body language are a vital part of BSL
Here’s the BSL sign for “friend(s)” – the meaning is clear, but something vital is missing: the face!
At BSL classes you learn that the right facial expressions are part of the signs, so for example you can’t sign “happy” with a blank face. As you progress, you get more confident about using facial expression and body language. Among older hearing people it’s sometimes considered rude to be very expressive, especially perhaps if they’re British. But if you watch people signing fluently it actually looks graceful and dynamic.
Where to watch and learn sign language
You can watch signing on the BBC programme “See Hear” or on any sign language interpreted programme. Children’s programmes are fun to watch with sign interpretation – and easier to understand. On the internet there’s the lovely http://www.signedstories.com. And for the little ones there’s always “Something Special”on CBeebies, with Mr Tumble. Basic BSL courses are available online, but learning face-to-face with a deaf instructor is more fun and more effective. You might be able to find an evening class in your area.
Deaf children teaching hearing children to sign
A video by the journalist Hannah Gelbart appeared on the BBC website last week, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-39274661 : “Should children learn sign language?” She filmed some deaf children teaching hearing children from a nearby school to sign, and her film also appeared on CBBC today: http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/39346960. It showed you the kids helping each other and making new friends. The deaf children said it made them feel “happy and confident” to play with hearing children who could use basic sign language, and they obviously loved teaching it. The hearing children will go on to be able to communicate with other deaf people as well; it’s a skill for life. The hearing children said that signing was fun, they enjoyed having a “secret language” and it came in useful when they were somewhere noisy.
I used to sign all day when I was teaching primary deaf children. We invited some local hearing children to play, and they invited our children to their school. All the children learned a lot about communication. I went on to teach in a secondary school where most of the students were hearing, and some had varying degrees of hearing impairment. We ran an after-school “signing club” and everybody was invited.
The benefits of sign language for hearing children
There’s been an online petition asking for BSL to be taught in schools. The government replied that there’s no time on the curriculum, but schools are still free to teach it if they want. It’s easy for primary children to learn basic sign – you don’t need many sessions to learn the finger alphabet and a few signs. Children of this age are a lot less inhibited than adults. The signs for emotions are particularly useful for “emotional literacy”. Kids can practise a whole range of facial expressions to fit the different emotions. I think there’s a link between being able to sign and having an aptitude for drama. Animal signs are fun to learn as well. And the signs can be used to teach the kids foreign languages. I worked as a primary supply teacher for a while, and sometimes only had one day with each class. I had a sign language lesson ready so that if we had time they could learn some signing and I could offer them something new. This website provides some useful materials: “Let’s Sign”: http://www.deafbooks.co.uk.
I did “baby signing” with my daughter, which involves using a few basic signs from BSL to help babies communicate while they’re learning to talk. She soon dropped the signs when she didn’t need them anymore, but we kept some of them going and she can still finger spell and use a few signs. This can be useful when you’re on opposite sides of the swimming pool and you need to communicate! Even if your signing gets “rusty”, I think it still helps kids and adults to express themselves, and most importantly to communicate with deaf people.
What do you think? Can your child sign, and should all hearing children learn sign language?