As somebody who’s always loved languages and hates being flummoxed by a word they don’t know (I have to rush and look it up in a dictionary), learning BSL has been an interesting experience. I’m fascinated with this expressive, visual language and how the signs representing words can be either very obvious or completely obscure. For example ‘tea’ (lifting your forefingers up to your mouth with your little finger sticking up in the air – the universal sign for tea) is really easy to remember. But signs which bear no resemblance at all to the words they’re supposed to represent, such as ‘hotel’ (the nearest I can describe this to is taking your cap off and putting it sideways onto the table) require a feat of memory power which has been really challenging. It certainly gets the sludge moving in my brain in a way that it hasn’t done for years!
People were signing as early as the 16th century, but BSL is an unwritten language so it’s difficult to know exactly how and when it began. When Thomas Braidwood’s ‘Academy for Deaf and Dumb’ opened in 1760, this was the first school in Britain to include sign language in education. Then, as more people moved to the cities, BSL became standardised and used for teaching internationally.
Today there are apps to help us learn BSL, for example I use the SignBSL app (an online BSL dictionary) to remind me if I can’t get the sign correct. But then I hit another barrier – there are so many different signs for different geographical locations. In my first year alone I’ve had 3 teachers (for various reasons) – the first taught me signs from Newcastle, the second taught me signs from Darlington and my current teacher is teaching me signs from Durham. That’s 3 different signs for every single word just in the first year – I know that this is the same as different dialects and different regions, and I can appreciate the rich variety and history of language evolution, but that’s still a lot for a beginner to learn!
Just like any language, BSL is constantly evolving and new signs are being created all the time. Using the letters ‘P’ + ‘W’ is easy to remember as the sign for ‘Prince William’, but BSL seems much harder to me than learning French, German or Spanish, mainly because it’s difficult to actually write down a description of what the sign looks like. For example, this week for the word ‘party’ I wrote: “cross wrists facing away from me, turn fists over, open fists and move hands apart then splay fingers wide” – that’s a long description for just one word! By the time I’ve finished an hour’s lesson I’ve got pages of notes!
I’m now revising for my Level 1 exam so it’s still early days but I’m starting to get the hang of it and to chat (albeit in very simple fashion) to the deaf clients I support at work. And the rewards are far more than just learning a new language … it’s seeing the surprise and appreciation in the eyes of my deaf clients as they realise I’m starting to communicate with them in their own language, rather than me expecting them to adapt to mine. I get smiles, encouragement and laughter as we connect for the first time in a totally new way which is absolutely brilliant. That, in itself, makes all the hard work worthwhile. Wish me luck!