Deaf Studies Corner14th May 2015

BSL - Regional Variations - Respect and Knowledge of Linguistics

Proud of my regional signing identity, it is for the Deaf Community to decide if regional variation and linguistic rules should be dropped

by Sarah Lawrence

Chatting away to some other long standing Deaf BSL teachers the other day, we all had one concern, and that is the erosion of some or all of the regional dialects of sign language. All of us had seen or experienced almost daily challenges to the regional signs we use and teach. For me, those challenges come in a number of ways, both inside and outside the classroom, and I really do wonder if we are on a path to destruction if we simply stand idly by and let it happen.

The prospect of a UK-wide BSL will be greeted with cheers in some quarters, particularly some of those who use it as a second language and find the regional dialects something of an inconvenience. But is this really the way the Deaf community want their language to go, or is this something being imposed on us. I for one feel the latter but let me explain why.

BSL/English interpreters play a major role in my life. Whether it is in my own businesses, college or in my private life, I have relied heavily on interpreters to communicate with hearing people in a wide variety of situations. Life without them would have been very different, there’s no doubt about that. Whilst appreciative though, increasingly I seem to be challenged on some of the signs I use or ask the interpreter to use to help my understanding. Sadly, that is not always done in a way that respects me as a long-standing teacher of BSL or as a Deaf woman using my first language. It is more of a challenge than seeking verification, asking me if I am sure and even telling me the signs I am using are wrong. It makes for an interesting dynamic, but I’m not sure there are too many times when a French interpreter will say to a French speaker, “No, that’s wrong, the correct French word is….”

It would be wrong to think that the only challenge to my language comes from interpreters, it is much wider than that. I belong to various BSL social media groups, ranging from groups for people learning BSL, through to BSL teachers and BSL activists. A whole range of questions are asked through these self-help groups and the replies often contain a range of advice, some of which is based on deep-rooted knowledge, understanding and daily use of cultural Deaf BSL and other advice based on what someone might have learnt in the classroom at Level 2 a week ago. 

Arguments, disagreements and cross words occur regularly, all because one region uses a different sign to another, or because one person understands the need for translation of meaning rather than translation of a single English word. The other big fall out occurs through knowledge or ignorance of accurate signing convention, for example, when to finger-spell, use a finger-spelling pattern or use a local signing colloquialism. The problem is that on social media, everyone seems to be put themselves as an expert and when challenged they go into defence mode, rather than perhaps learn themselves.

The biggest issue through this process is that bad practices get built upon, with the person shouting the loudest and longest often having the last word, and their position being taken as fact because they were so certain about what they were saying. Within some of these groups, especially BSL learner groups, I am also taken aback by how many questions are actually asked of fellow learners rather than of their BSL teacher. The responses, given with the best intentions, always vary because of the regional variations of other learners, but are also reliant on that fellow student being right. If I had a pound for every time I have seen a wrong sign offered in my classroom at all Levels I would be a rich woman and that is why I constantly remind students to ask the teacher (or research by asking local native BSL users and check the linguistics with your BSL teacher). 

Don’t get me wrong, it is wonderful that so that many people use social media to support their learning but it does create problems for teachers when you have this underworld of advice that often provides inaccurate information.

Another threat to BSL generally and regional variations specifically, is the introduction of sign language from other countries into the teaching of BSL here in the UK. Students taught by teachers whose first language is American Sign Language or AUSLAN come into my class telling me time and again that I am wrong with my signs. It is only when I ask who they learned their signs from and explained their background that they accept they might not have been taught a sign in British Language at all, or a London regional sign

Along with a long standing practice of teachers from one region teaching ‘their’ regional signs in another, it is a wonder that many of the strong regional variations still exist today, with many of the older generation proud of that regional identity. It is wonderful that we have always had this rich sharing of our beautiful language through teachers re-locating, but I feel very strongly that there should be respect and acknowledgement of the specific variations of signs for the area that BSL is now being taught in.

As a BSL teacher I get the opportunity to teach people from different regions, sometimes on the same course. Whilst I am more at ease teaching just my own regional signs, I know it’s not fair on the students to teach them regional signs from a different area to the one they might sign in. For that reason I teach area specific signs, respecting and acknowledging the vibrancy of BSL in each area.

But what of the future?

Talking to other Deaf teachers, they tell me that they feel the teaching of BSL is more diverse now than it has ever been. For those that teach in a way that recognises and protects regional variations, they feel too many outside influences are putting a lot of pressure on their teaching, with on-line resources rarely explaining their regional background.

I know I get asked often by students and others why we don't just have one standard British Sign Language as it would be so much easier for students. Indeed, I also get asked why Deaf people across the world cannot use the same sign language as it would be sooo much easier! I suppose that is why there is no longer regional spoken dialects in Newcastle, Liverpool, London, Cornwall, Wales, Birmingham, Scotland, and other areas in the UK. Perhaps it is why Welsh and Gaelic were allowed to die as languages, the complexity of different regional languages making things far too difficult!!

In the same way that people in those areas cherish their regional dialect, the Deaf community is the same. I enjoy going to other areas and seeing local variations. When I meet other Deaf people on my travels, I instantly know where they are from because of the language they use, the same as a hearing person meeting people from other regions does when they start to talk.

If BSL is to become just one standard language across the UK, then so be it. I wont agree with it, but I will have to respect it. However, BSL is the language of the Deaf community. It is owned by Deaf people, and a decision on uniformity has to come from the Deaf community itself, not teachers from other areas or students who are learning our language.

In the meantime, along with other passionate Deaf BSL users, I will continue to protect all of the the regional variations in the UK and will resist many of the bad linguistic practices that are invading the teaching and practical use of sign language.

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Deaf Lifestyle / Deaf Studies Corner

14th May 2015