Kate Lister: It’s harder to learn BSL than people realise

Posted on November 4, 2015

This year I decided to learn BSL.

I’ve always been interested in sign language. We learned fingerspelling at school, and I remember it was amazing to suddenly be able to communicate no matter how noisy the environment was. Well, pretty much communicate – with fingerspelling it took us an age to actually say anything, but still.

Then, when I was 16, I decided I wanted to be an air stewardess. The requirements were: I had to be over 5’2” (tick, just), have 5 GCSEs (tick, again just) and should be able speak another language. Hmm. My feelings towards GCSE French were ambivalent at best, so I triumphantly announced to my mother, ‘I’ll learn sign language.’

Not as easy as it sounds. There was one BSL course in my area, Tuesday nights at 7:30, two bus rides away in an adult ed centre. For a 16-year-old in outer London? No chance. So I gave up my dream of flying the skies and got a job in Safeway’s – in charge of the reducing gun, an amazing job, but that’s another story.

Fast forward 7 years to 2003. I was working in my first management role in a call centre and battling my way through a BA at the Open University when BSL got official status as a minority language.

Wow! I thought, now I’ll finally learn it! There weren’t any courses nearby, but I was determined this time, so I got a book from the local library and set out to learn BSL in my free time.

Free time. Um, yeah. With a full time job, a distance learning degree and a 23-year-old’s social life, I’ll leave you to guess how many pages I got through before the book was gathering dust on the windowsill. Once again, my plan was thwarted.

This year I started my MA (still with the Open University) and I decided to do a module in accessibility in education.

Fantastic, I thought, and I’ll finally learn BSL to go with it. No more adult ed community courses, in this brave year of 2015 I just googled ‘BSL MOOC’.

There wasn’t one. ‘Learn BSL online’? A couple of hits, hooray – some YouTube tutorials of varying quality, an online course for 20 quid or 600 quid’s worth of courses on another (ouch!).

£600 was too much for me, and I thought I could cover the topics in the £20 course through YouTube, so I decided to see how far I could get with the free resources.

Some months later, I can manage greetings, days of the week, numbers and colours; I still can’t form complete sentences, nor do I have anyone to practise with, and I’ve run out of free or affordable resources.

What it comes down to is learning BSL is not easy. Some might say that’s the way it should be. BSL is a language that’s been developed over hundreds (thousands?) of years by the deaf community for the deaf community, and who am I to come blundering in with my untalented fingers making a mess of it?

Kind of like going to Paris and seeing the horror on the waiter’s face when trying to ask where the loo is.

I don’t agree with that. Yes, those who speak a language as their first or second language often define the linguistic community, like most native speakers of French are French or Canadian, and those who speak it as their second language often have a strong relation to the French community.

But that doesn’t mean no one should able to learn French. Even if they make a pig’s ear of it, their efforts to learn should be encouraged – they don’t weaken or compromise the language, they actually strengthen it because the global position of a language is defined by the number of its speakers, and the more learners, the stronger it is.

I think there should be accessible online resources to teach basic, communicative BSL. By communicative, I mean actual sentences, language for communication, rather than lists of colours, animals and days of the week.

I think this partly for the linguistic aspect, to support BSL in its status as a minority language, but mainly for the human aspect, that languages exist for communication, and communication should always be facilitated.

Last month I saw a wonderful TED talk by Rachel Kolb, who talked frankly and openly about how group conversations feel to her when people aren’t signing – like watching a world championship ping-pong match. It made me resolve once again to learn BSL, but this time I don’t want to keep it to myself, I’d like to help others learn it, too.

That’s why a couple of other MA students and I are tentatively putting together a project to create a free online resource bank of conversational lessons in sign language, and we’re looking for BSL and Makaton signers to help us create it.

We’ve entered the idea in the Jisc accessibility competition , and if we get enough votes we could receive funding to go ahead and develop it. So if you’d like to see more choice and diversity in the world of communication, and a more level playing field in social interaction, please vote for us to receive funding and/or get in touch with us to be part of the project.

Thank you.

A Londoner at heart, Kate is now an English language teacher in Germany doing an MA in education in her “free” time. She has two small children, is passionate about languages, learning,  accessibility in education, and cheese. She has always wanted to write and is really excited to finally be doing it. Twitter @KateMarburg

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