John Walker: Travelling alone in America made me believe that a GCSE in BSL is important

Posted on October 24, 2017

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There is something about travelling alone, armed with just a pair of hands, a sign language and an inquisitive mind.

There is always that niggling thought, can I survive; will I be able to communicate with the immigration official, relax at the AirBnB, negotiate the transport system and accept help from others?

America couldn’t be more different than home: the sign language is different, they drop their ‘u’ to cut back on printing costs, and they speak stereophonically.

In reality, America is most probably one of the easiest countries to navigate because … so many Americans can sign something. America is also the country of Marlee Matlin, Switched at Birth, and obsession with expressive interpreters in emergency announcements.

I was on my journey to Chicago and decided to take the Irish route – I flew to Dublin and entered American immigration there, rather than the States. I thought it would save time and sort out immigration in my own time and on familiar territory.

I was ordered to stand in a queue, lined up in an orderly fashion, waiting for the next available immigration official. When it was my turn, I started to sweat a bit: what if the official asked me difficult questions? What if they refused to communicate with me in sign language or gesture? What if they didn’t want me in the country?

So, I approached the official, committed to the fact that I will use sign language unwaveringly, and I signed the little ASL I knew. HI, NAME ME j-o-h-n. PASSPORT YOU WANT(?).

I didn’t expect what would happen next, NO PROBLEM. PASSPORT PLEASE. TRAVEL WHERE? He signed in ASL. My jaw hit the floor and all of my fears vanished in a second.

He checked the documentation, asked me to recognise my luggage on the computer screen and scanned my fingers – and I was on my way.

The immigration official was stern all the way through because he was an official and treated me no differently from anyone else. I could argue this was a one off, but this experience didn’t stop there.

After I landed in Chicago, I had problems in working out how to buy a ticket for the Metro. While I was struggling, I was approached by a security guy with a bit of American styled customer care, he fingerspelled, ‘can I help you’. I then found out that I had pressed for the wrong ticket option and I was again on my way.

This experience of ASL signers suddenly appearing out of nowhere just continued through the 10 days I were there. The person in my queue when I wanted to order a coffee at the Krispy Kreme’s stall. The shop attendant in the shoe shop who signed a detailed comparison between two types of walking boots and tried to persuade me to buy a pair. The waiter in the restaurant who could sign what was on the menu and wanted a good tip.

In the end, I counted that I had 14 encounters over the 10 days when someone could sign in ASL.

America has had a different attitude to sign language. In much of Europe, we had periods when oralism was the main method of education – sign language became a dirty word. We are still recovering from the implicit oppression – sign language isn’t good enough, it doesn’t have a written form, it looks funny, etc. Instead, America has embraced sign language despite the Milan 1880 conference (where a ban began on signed languages in education).

Tony Evans wrote on Limping Chicken that learning BSL in schools as a GCSE will not necessarily improve the quality of Deaf people’s lives in the UK, and is likely to cause resentment to the language in the same way as English speaking children learning Welsh in Wales (from his experience).

Sometimes, we get a little bit caught up in our own inadequacies in learning a second language and forget that habits and trends can change.

Just this year, I am seeing an influx of students desiring to learn a second language, which is probably a spur from Brexit – young people are looking for options that will give them a fighting chance in the job market.

My own undergraduate class is full of students wanting to learn BSL for when they qualify as teachers, psychologists and social care professionals.

A GCSE in BSL cannot be a replacement for improving education for Deaf children but, at the same time, most deaf children are educated in a mainstream school with little support.

The issues will not be solved solely by specialist provision but through a whole school approach to language development.

We can’t improve the country solely by navel gazing and wondering why British people ‘can’t learn languages’. We need to look beyond our own psychosis and start to imagine a world where there is always someone who can sign something.

From my experience in America, I realised that to become an independent person in the world we live in, we need to make sign language more freely available at all levels of education. It is possible, I have seen it.

Read more of John’s articles for us here.

John Walker is a Teaching Fellow at University of Sussex and PhD student in Social Geography. Deaf, and sign language user by informed choice. He writes a blog on topics related to the Bourdieusian principle, by the title “Deaf Capital” . It is concerned with the ‘value’ that people place on the Deaf community or the cultural elements of deaf lives that can be askew or misconstrued. Follow him on twitter as @chereme

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