Tyron Woolfe: I’m a BSL user, but I’m learning American Sign Language. Here’s why (BSL)

Posted on February 5, 2016

You find yourself looking at adult education courses when you’re approaching 40, thinking about what you want to do, looking for that “something new”.

To watch Tyron’s article signed in BSL by the man himself, click play below:

With massive cuts everywhere and constant discussion on what is “reasonable” access in FE/Adult Education, all you want is a course that is fully accessible, enjoyable and one where you don’t need to go through challenges before enrolling.

And whilst pottery may not require so much interpreting, its not as appealing to me as learning a foreign language. However, requesting sign language interpreters on a course where I can learn a foreign language (such as French or Portuguese) is half the battle – learning the language as a Deaf person is another!

Little did I realise what a perfect opportunity was in front of me when some friends on Facebook were asking around for anyone interested in the fourth round of learning American Sign Language (ASL) in London.

IMG_5139I registered my interest, and I was soon asked to submit a quick video to explain why I was interested (bored, midlife crisis, amateur-ish use of ASL from interacting with American Deaf friends, want to do something progressive…) and then I was accepted! The cost was reasonable too.

Thanks to Lingoing.com we are using one of their function rooms in a building for start-up companies (alongside its free beverages but that’s another story). The class runs every week for 8 weeks, and there’s an advanced class for interested people.

Having grown up with Deaf parents who have both taught sign language for many years, I have a confession to make….. I used to think their hearing students were pretty slow. Three weeks into my ASL course I am becoming aware of how difficult it is!!!!

Remembering and practising vocabulary, often categorised by subject; weather, numbers, greetings etc, is hard work. Remembering new things is also harder when you’re older!

But the most difficult of all is fingerspelling! Americans use the one-handed alphabet, and us Brits the two-handed version. I believe one of our classmates dislocated his thumb recently and it was agony to watch him practising in pain!!

As Dan Langholtz (our teacher) tells us, it is most common in foreign sign language learning for sign language users to have problems in fingerspelling. Whilst you can master spelling-it-out, reading finger-spelt words is another!

The class has 11 deaf students and one hearing interpreter – we are all fluent sign language users. We are aware we are at an advantage in this class given that we know English already and we also know sign language – many of the rules of sign language can be seen in more than one sign language.

Humour is at its best when we are learning particular signs that either:

– appear to be sexual/taboo in BSL but are bona fide ASL signs; “25” in ASL is something else in BSL!
– are obviously associated with individuals in the class, for example my lodger, who is also on the course, staring at me with a knowing-expression when we are learning the sign for “Obsessed” (he thinks I have OCD!)
– when the teacher signs something totally wrong on purpose to check we are using our brains!

Sometimes we will go out for a drink after class, sometimes we will meet before the class for dinner. These are normal things people do when doing an adult education course, and I believe hearing people take these things for granted, but they’re less common for Deaf students.

So what’s after the 8-week course? Maybe I will think about the advanced ASL course. Maybe a new subject can be found, pottery still has no appeal for me! I have a number of deaf French friends, perhaps an introductory course in Langue des Signes Française? (French Sign Language).

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