Learning sign language

[Note: I was going to try and translate this post into BSL for the benefit of my readers who sign (there’s at least one!) but I have a feeling this post would never appear as I keep putting it off! Maybe next time šŸ™‚ ]

A very good friend of mine (Ben) is deaf. We’ve known each other about three and a half years but communication at first was very slow because Ben is profoundly deaf, his first language is BSL (British Sign Language) and he also doesn’t lipread. We started with writings on pieces of paper being passed back and forth, followed by Ben teaching some basic fingerspelling (signing letters of the alphabet), followed by an introduction to some rudimentary bits of sign language. At this point I decided that learning BSL properly would not only be really interesting, it’d be damn useful to be able to communicate with Ben by a quicker means other than something similar in speed to morse code. Since then I’ve completed the CACDP BSL level 1 and 2 courses and on Tuesday I started my level 3 course (it was supposed to start in September but has been delayed a few times).

This course is even more time consuming that the two before; level 1 was two hours a week, level 3 was two and a half hours and level 3 is now 3 hours. So for the next 30 weeks (plus any holidays the college has) I’ll be studying 6:30 to 9:30 on Tuesday evenings… phew! Given that we’re up to level 3, I expected the class to be quite small but there were 17 of us – and of course I was the only guy, as with both my previous courses. What is it about guys not wanting to learn BSL? Very few centres appear to offer the level 3 course so this probably has something to do with the class size, along with the fact that it appears to be a lot cheaper than anywhere else!

We started with the usual introductory-type things, working in pairs to discuss our jobs, interests etc and then present to the class on the snippets of information we’d gleaned from our partner. Then after a much-needed tea break we jumped straight into a discussion on some fundamental BSL grammatical concepts. The important thing to realise about BSL (and other sign languages) is that it isn’t simply English represented by visual movements; BSL is an entirely different language in its own right with it’s own word ordering and many other unique approaches to communication (although some people do sign with SSE – Sign Supported English). To give you an idea of the things that make up the language, some of the grammatical items we discussed are as follows:

    • Classifiers – different hand shapes used in many different ways
      Proforms – handshapes that change while signing
      Compound signs – merging different signs together to mean something new, e.g. think + true = believe
      Placement – using the signing space around you to represent different things, e.g. referring back to a space which can represent someone or something by pointing or eye movement, listing items on fingers and coming back to the same fingers for the same item, signing multiple items simultaneously such as a person getting onto a bus and sitting down etc.
      Question forms – express questions simply by raising (closed questions) or narrowing (open questions) the eyebrows, or nodding/shaking of the head to imply you think you know the answer
      Negation/Affirmation – nodding or shaking the head to confirm or deny something, e.g. signing ‘computer use’ with a nod would imply you could and with a shake that you can’t
      Timelines – up to five directional movements can be used around the body to represent timelines with different meanings
      Non-manual features – using facial expressions and body language to give extra meaning or to change the meaning during the use of the sign
      Role shifts – representing/simulating different people/animals/etc yourself and switching to others, e.g. to represent two sides of a converstation
  • It’s difficult to explain some of these without a visual aid and I could be doing this all day so these are just quick summaries – feel free to contact me if you want a more detailed explanation.

    So there you go, a quick introduction to my signing history and a glimpse into what a sign language class might involve.

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    50 thoughts on “Learning sign language

    1. Pingback: Gareth Jones » Compound signs

    2. Hey, subscribed to your vid on youtube and then found my way here.I bit behind you in the sense that i started BSL level 1 last september but then it got cancelled after five weeks. so been wiaint for them to find another tutor to start it again. Good news is that the course starts again in September, so BSL level one here i come!

    3. Hey, subscribed to your vid on youtube and then found my way here.I bit behind you in the sense that i started BSL level 1 last september but then it got cancelled after five weeks. so been wiaint for them to find another tutor to start it again. Good news is that the course starts again in September, so BSL level one here i come!

    4. Hi gareth,I’m a level 2 BSL student, last assessment this Wed!! Found your blog as i was swatting up on non manual features. thanks v. interesting! how do you find time for the blog and your studies??? I’ve got a deaf friend also who I interpret for at church and hence doing level 2 with a view to pre -level 3 in september and possible job supporting deaf students at my local college. Nice to meet other students on line . thanks again and best wishes with your learning. Lyn mcCanna

    5. Hi gareth,I'm a level 2 BSL student, last assessment this Wed!! Found your blog as i was swatting up on non manual features. thanks v. interesting! how do you find time for the blog and your studies??? I've got a deaf friend also who I interpret for at church and hence doing level 2 with a view to pre -level 3 in september and possible job supporting deaf students at my local college. Nice to meet other students on line . thanks again and best wishes with your learning. Lyn mcCanna

    6. Hi Lyn, glad you found the stuff here useful šŸ™‚ Writing the stuff here takes no time at all so that’s easy to do. The signed videos take a bit longer and require some thought and organisation so they take a while and sometimes I just don’t do it. I wonder whether starting with a signed video and then translating to English might be quicker, maybe I’ll try that soon.Level 3 is very different to 1 and 2 (portfolio of evidence rather than exams) but I’m really enjoying it. Good luck on with your assessment on Wednesday!

    7. Hi Lyn, glad you found the stuff here useful šŸ™‚ Writing the stuff here takes no time at all so that's easy to do. The signed videos take a bit longer and require some thought and organisation so they take a while and sometimes I just don't do it. I wonder whether starting with a signed video and then translating to English might be quicker, maybe I'll try that soon.Level 3 is very different to 1 and 2 (portfolio of evidence rather than exams) but I'm really enjoying it. Good luck on with your assessment on Wednesday!

    8. Hey,Found your blog through your YouTube video, came in really handy when I was trying to refresh my memory on multichannel signs. Good to see another guy learning to sign, my Level 2 course was the same, I was the only guy in a group of 16! Am nearly finished my Level 3 NVQ, which seems to be much easier than the normal Level 3 certificate, so hopefully I will get that qualification. Not sure how you find the time to work, do your Level 3 and translate stuff to put here, so all respect to you mate. Oh, btw, your experience of interpreting at a bigger meeting, I remember my first time, so daunting, but if you got praise from a deaf person, thats the highest praise you can get, so well done you šŸ™‚ Hope you dont mind me posting, or me checking your blog every now and again

    9. Hey,Found your blog through your YouTube video, came in really handy when I was trying to refresh my memory on multichannel signs. Good to see another guy learning to sign, my Level 2 course was the same, I was the only guy in a group of 16! Am nearly finished my Level 3 NVQ, which seems to be much easier than the normal Level 3 certificate, so hopefully I will get that qualification. Not sure how you find the time to work, do your Level 3 and translate stuff to put here, so all respect to you mate. Oh, btw, your experience of interpreting at a bigger meeting, I remember my first time, so daunting, but if you got praise from a deaf person, thats the highest praise you can get, so well done you šŸ™‚ Hope you dont mind me posting, or me checking your blog every now and again

    10. Hey Dave,Thanks very much for your comments, more than happy for you to paying attention and contributing :)Guys learning to sign definitely seem to be a rarity, I've been the only guy on all my three courses. Good luck with the NVQ, I thought it was supposed to be harder than the certificate but maybe I'm wrong – maybe they're just different. As I don't really do much official work with any deaf people (apart from the occasional thing with my friend Ben) a vocational course didn't seem like the right choice for me so I picked the certificate. Still have lots of work to do for it, definitely hard with a full time job I agree!

    11. Hey Dave,Thanks very much for your comments, more than happy for you to paying attention and contributing :)Guys learning to sign definitely seem to be a rarity, I've been the only guy on all my three courses. Good luck with the NVQ, I thought it was supposed to be harder than the certificate but maybe I'm wrong – maybe they're just different. As I don't really do much official work with any deaf people (apart from the occasional thing with my friend Ben) a vocational course didn't seem like the right choice for me so I picked the certificate. Still have lots of work to do for it, definitely hard with a full time job I agree!

    12. Really interesting gareth!! I've neary finished my level 3bsl, really looking forwards to becoming an interpreter. I've worked with deaf people for 6years now and i'm still loving it.

    13. Really interesting gareth!! I've neary finished my level 3bsl, really looking forwards to becoming an interpreter. I've worked with deaf people for 6years now and i'm still loving it.

    14. Hi Jenny,Thanks for your comments – really glad you found it interesting. Good luck with the rest of your level 3 and the rest to become an interpreter. Always need more of people like you!

    15. Hi Jenny,Thanks for your comments – really glad you found it interesting. Good luck with the rest of your level 3 and the rest to become an interpreter. Always need more of people like you!

    16. Hey, subscribed to your vid on youtube and then found my way here.I bit behind you in the sense that i started BSL level 1 last september but then it got cancelled after five weeks. so been wiaint for them to find another tutor to start it again. Good news is that the course starts again in September, so BSL level one here i come!

    17. I've had various administrative problems with all three of my BSL courses so I'm not really surprised. Ironically communication problems seem to be at heart of most of them. Good luck with Level 1!

    18. Hey, subscribed to your vid on youtube and then found my way here.I bit behind you in the sense that i started BSL level 1 last september but then it got cancelled after five weeks. so been wiaint for them to find another tutor to start it again. Good news is that the course starts again in September, so BSL level one here i come!

    19. I've had various administrative problems with all three of my BSL courses so I'm not really surprised. Ironically communication problems seem to be at heart of most of them. Good luck with Level 1!

    20. Hi Garath,I'm currently studying level 2 (started in september) really enjoying it. I don't know any deaf people so i am trawling the internet for BSL blogs etc….found yours really clear and helpful. Thanks eversoGilly

    21. Hi Garath,I'm currently studying level 2 (started in september) really enjoying it. I don't know any deaf people so i am trawling the internet for BSL blogs etc….found yours really clear and helpful. Thanks eversoGilly

    22. Hi Gilly, thanks for your message! Glad you found this site useful. I've been a bit quiet lately as have had lots of things on, including putting together my level 3 portfolio which is quite a task! More to come at some point, I promise. Good luck with your Level 2.

    23. Hi Gilly, thanks for your message! Glad you found this site useful. I've been a bit quiet lately as have had lots of things on, including putting together my level 3 portfolio which is quite a task! More to come at some point, I promise. Good luck with your Level 2.

    24. Hi Gareth – my friend and I started our Level 3 Cert in Sept 08 and are really struggling with the grammar and structure of the BSL language x any tips???have read your word order which IS a big help – but still confused!!!!! x x Melissa

    25. Hi Melissa,Glad my post on word order was useful but yes, the grammar can be a bit confusing. It also changes depending on the type of person signing, context and a whole variety of things (as with other languages). There's a few other articles I've written on this site which might be of use – try looking through those here: https://blog.garethj.com/tag/bsl/Another recommendation would be the Linguistics of Sign Language book (http://www.cambridge.org/catalogue/catalogue.as…). It's a bit heavy going but has some really good detail on BSL grammar. I found it really useful and interesting.Good luck with your level 3 – let me know how you get on!

    26. thanks for that – and so quick too!! x can we be really cheeky and get you to look over our assignment? we have a few problems that when we ask our deafies that we've known for years – they say the structure is fine – but then we go to college our tutor says otherwise!CONFUSED!!!we're at the start of all the video work and deadline for one is this coming tuesday (no pressure then) we have tried 5 times to get this right and its still rejected šŸ˜¦

    27. Hi Melissa,I'm not a teacher and have only just completed my level 3 portfolio myself so I'm no expert! My suggestion to you would be to always follow your tutor's advice. They are much more likely know the most up to date requirements from the exam board than your friends. Good luck!

    28. I think people that are not deaf should line it if they want. Becase they would be able to understand the deaf batter.

    29. Hi Gareth, I've just found your info when I googled multi channel signs – it's really interesting, and I wondered if you've come across our Sign Language DVD's. I'm the MD of 'whats the sign for…?' and we produce 'teach yourself/revision' style DVDs that sell nationwide. We're one of the market leaders with 9 in the current series. Have a look at our website for more info. http://www.whatsign.co.uk Keep up the good work – very informative!

    30. Hi Gareth,

      I just found your blog while looking for more information on BSL word order (your entry was very helpful) and I was wondering where you went for level 3. I’m going to be finishing level 2 soon and the cost of level 3 where I’m currently studying is worryingly high!

      -Jo

      • Hi Jo. I did my level 3 at Peter Symonds College in Winchester (http://psc.ac.uk/). No idea if they still run the course or what price it is though. Level 3 was a massive increase in cost from level 2 for me though.

    31. Hi gareth ,
      please could you explain about five directional movements of timelines for me as I only know 3 of them.

      Flora

      • Hi Flora. It’s actually been quite a long time since I did any BSL so my memory is pretty hazy. I can only remember four of the ones I was taught which (I think!) were the following:

        – Up/down the side of the body (e.g. growing up)
        – Left/right across the front of the body (e.g. next/previous)
        – Toward/away from the front of the body (e.g. next year)
        – Back/forth over the shoulder (e.g. until now)

        Sorry I couldn’t be of more use! Possibly worth asking a BSL teacher if you know any, or maybe looking in a BSL grammar book?

        • Hi Gareth,

          Thank you for the info.Ā  I’ve been looking at this site long time and found really useful and GREAT!

          Take care! (please keep signing for us and let us know any suggestion that you might think of.
          I think you’ve got great skills!

          Flora @5679518b98724712bd744b65900dc279:disqus -)
          Ā 

    32. Thanks on 2 counts.. I am 66 yr old fart… I am learning BSL and dabbling in CSS/ HTML.. Thanks for insight to both your interests. I too have deaf mate who encouraged me to learn BSL…. word order and grammer in BSL totally different, but CSS, thank God, has only one region or I would still be sat with thumb up bum trying to understand both.. updates needed … thanks

      • Hey Mick, sorry for the delayed response but thanks for your comment. Been a while since I did any BSL but a fascinating language to learn. Good luck with it (and the web stuff!).

      • Hi Flora, I’m afraid I’ve not come across that term before but a quick search suggests the following:

        “A set of sign characteristics, which may vary according to relationships between language users, situations and the medium of communication. `Standard register` is used typically between colleagues, casual acquaintances or strangers, and will usually not involve particular familiarity, technicality, humour, irony or innuendo. Where there is a high degree of familiarity between language users, many informalities may be exchanged which would be laughable or even offensive in a business context. On the other hand, using a formal register in signing to a close colleague could be construed as cold or linguistically inept.”
        [from http://www.signature.org.uk/glossary.php?f=R ]

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