[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 🙂 ]
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.