Charlie Swinbourne: How being able to sign helps you communicate in a foreign language

Posted on August 18, 2015

I’ve just returned from a two week holiday by the sea in France. My family enjoyed all the things about France you might expect – the sun, pretty villages, beaches, and food.

This was also our first holiday in a non-English speaking country since the children were born, and what struck me was how, when you try and communicate with a French person who knows no English, being able to sign makes a surprising difference.

On the last night of our holiday, we stayed in a French farmhouse where we were served a home-cooked French meal by a waiter who was a bit of a ringer for Gerard Depardieu and spoke only French. Despite the language barrier, using gesture and sign, we were able to have a full conversation.

We found out that he wasn’t married to the woman who cooked the food (this made him laugh when we suggested it), that he had 5 grandchildren, that he’d lived in the area all his life, and that he’d quite like to serve us an aperitif (which was very tasty indeed).
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Interestingly, as I started to use gesture, so did he, so we were both basically ‘signing’ (in the most basic sense) and also speaking to establish concepts (this reminded me of how Deaf people from different countries, who use different versions of sign language, manage to find an understanding quickly with one another).

What also happened during this conversation was that I learned the French words for the words we were trying to convey. For example, he said the female cook was “amie” – meaning his friend, not his wife. He also told us the words for “mother” and “father” in French – mere and pere. I think I learned more French (that I’ll remember, at least) in a 15 minute conversation with him than I did in 3 years of French at school.

Another example of using gesture/sign was when I spoke to a French man who was staying opposite us on our campsite. We’d run out of matches so I asked if I could borrow his lighter. After I’d lit the hob, we then had a polite conversation.

His English was pretty good, but we kept stumbling upon words we couldn’t translate. Such as jellyfish. Suddenly, being able to gesture and describe the jellyfish with our hands made the breakthrough – and we were able to progress in the conversation (He was telling me that in warmer seas around France there’s a high risk of getting a sting!).

More generally, across the time we were away, I was able to order items such as ice cream in restaurants by visually describing it with my hand, and bread (by miming a slicing movement), and chips (basically by signing it in the same way as BSL) – although as the holiday went on, I started to learn all the French words for these foods, which the waiters appreciated a lot more.

Admittedly, there’s a limit to how in depth these conversations can be (and how long they can last, as they take a lot of patience) but those conversations really surprised me, and made me feel more like learning a bit more French before our next visit, because I know a little bit more would go a long way, especially since I can use gesture and sign to help fill in any gaps.

For more on this subject, it’s well worth reading an excellent 2008 article by Deaf journalist Cathy Heffernan in the Guardian on how being Deaf breaks down the barriers while travelling around the world.

By Charlie Swinbourne. Charlie is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned the films My SongComing Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.

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