DCAL: Why BSL linguistics matters for BSL teaching and learning (BSL)

Posted on December 16, 2015

We would like to join in recent discussions on social media in the British Sign Language community of what “BSL linguistics” means in the context of BSL teaching and learning.

To watch this article in BSL, click play, or scroll down to continue in English:

What is linguistics?

Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Unlike what many BSL teachers and students seem to think, linguists objectively study and describe how language actually works, not how people think it should work.

The way communities actually use language can be very different from what people (especially language teachers) believe about how language should work. It is important, however, to understand BOTH actual variation in usage and attitudes about this variation in a particular linguistic community.

What is the difference between a language teacher and a linguist?

The job of a linguist is different from a language teacher. A linguist does research and describes what the language looks like, and what is happening to the language.

A language teacher teaches and guides students how to sign or speak that language, and this may vary from teacher to teacher. These roles of language teacher and linguist are thus very different, but, sometimes people get them mixed up.

Language variation and change and borrowing

There are some well known facts about language that we know from linguistics. For example, all languages vary from one individual to another, and from one social group to another.

Also, all languages borrow from other languages. For example, around 60% of English vocabulary has been borrowed at one time or another from a different language (mainly Latin and Romance languages).

In addition, all languages change over time. BSL is no different. For example, there are a range of BSL signs that mean ‘sleep’ (see examples in BSL SignBank). Some signs are more traditional and preferred by older sign language teachers (e.g. variant 1 in SignBank), and others are less traditional and used by younger people (e.g. variant 2 in SignBank) and are not found in the old BSL dictionary (Brien 1992).

It is the linguist’s job to describe this variation and these differences (this gives us a very interesting insight into what is happening to the community and its language), and the job of a BSL teacher to teach what is used locally and the variations that the students may come into contact with. (Linguists can help with this by providing evidence of where signs are used and where they are traditional or non-traditional for that region – e.g. see regional information for colours, countries, numbers and UK placenames in BSL SignBank, based on signs used in the BSL Corpus)

BSL and language contact

We also know that languages that are in contact with each other influence each other. When one is a majority language and the other a minority language, the majority language tends to influence the minority language.

BSL signers are in constant contact with English, every day, and so the language they use is inevitably affected and shaped by English.

This is no different from spoken languages that are in constant contact with each other. In these cases, you find a high level of language mixing and borrowing (just as English has borrowed from Latin). The same is true for BSL.

This is why you see many BSL signers using this sign for Manchester or this sign for Wolverhampton or this sign for Hungary. These are known as loan translations, they are results of language contact, and most sign languages that have been studied to date have them.

Other examples such as touching the hip for ‘Asda’ are borrowings from gestures used in the wider community into BSL: this is also perfectly natural as gestures have also been incorporated into BSL.

Teaching BSL: what about the different varieties?

There are similar linguistic explanations for those BSL signs which are often considered to be “wrong”: these are all results of BSL being a natural language, many of them due to language contact.

One of the reasons that teachers often avoid the use of English-influenced varieties of signing in the classroom is because, although they know that students will encounter these in the community, they try to focus on the BSL varieties that are least affected by English as students will have trouble accessing these styles as a hearing second language learner.

Unfortunately, the target language of the classroom is sometimes misunderstood to be the only ‘right’ way to sign, when this is clearly not the case. On the contrary, because these signs are used by the BSL community, BSL students should be taught about them, in the same way that they are taught that regional variation is a good and natural thing in BSL.

This is particularly true of teaching BSL at higher levels: the more skilled the student, the more they need to be aware of the full range of signing styles, vocabulary etc that exist in the wider community.

We know that because BSL is a minority language, many people (both Deaf and hearing) do not have the opportunity to learn BSL from a native user, and and there are concerns in the Deaf community about how much BSL is changing because of this. There are widespread negative attitudes among the Deaf community towards some signs or styles of signing because of such concerns.

What does this all mean?

BSL teachers and assessors must have a better understanding of BSL linguistics (i.e. how it is actually used, and not simply how they think it should be used) in order to make more informed decisions about what to teach their students, and to be able to describe to students how BSL is used by the wider community beyond their own classroom.

By Kearsy Cormier, Robert Adam and Bencie Woll, of the Deafness, Cognition and Language Research Centre (DCAL), University College London. With thanks to Adam Schembri, La Trobe University, Melbourne.

Interested in learning more? Check out the DCAL CPD course “BSL lingustics for BSL teachers (Learn BSL linguistics from BSL linguists)”.

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Posted in: bsl translation, DCAL