What Signing Means to Me by Nicola Hollowell

What does Signing mean to me? Well, as a hearing person that’s an interesting question. In my case, signing and learning BSL isn’t all about what it means to me, it is mainly about what it means to a member of the deaf community that a hearing person can do one of the most basic things in life – communicate with them – in their language. It is about being able to form the human connection that those in the hearing community take for granted and the deaf community often go without. What signing means to me is being one more brick in the bridge between the hearing and the deaf. Having said this, I would be lying if I said that I started learning BSL as part of this noble mission.

In keeping this piece of writing honest and sharing my journey through the deaf world with you I will start at the beginning. As an individual, I am what is known as a functioning depressive. This means I suffer from depression, yet to the outside world, I have a full-time job, live independently, and appear to be everything I should be. Internally my mind is a maze of thriving trees next to overgrown stinging nettles. Each day brings positives and challenges, but like millions of other people, I find ways to manage this. How does this fit into BSL I hear you say? Well, read on and I will tell you.

For me, 2014 was a year of challenges and I was scared about what the future would look like. As a result, my depression symptoms worsened and I found myself looking for my usual positive outlet… to study and learn. It sounds rather strange, but I relish focussing on something other than my issues and the more I learn about the world around me, the more I don’t feel alone in it. I have studied a kaleidoscope of things from journalism to Greek mythology and every time I complete a new course, I come out of it feeling that little bit more connected to life. So, this time – 2014 – the learning was to be a new language! I saw French and German courses, yet, no pun intended, those didn’t speak to me… what did was Conversational BSL. I grew up having never met a person who was part of the deaf community, but I felt if I learned BSL then if I ever did, I might be of genuine help to someone one day. I booked the course, paid the fee, and rocked up on the first week expecting to walk out of there 6 weeks later fluent in BSL, after all, it’s just acting and hand movements, right? Well…no! From the very first session, I have never been happier to be proven ignorant and wrong. I looked forward to each lesson and swore I would never be ignorant about BSL again. Little did I know that I had still only learned the tip of an iceberg the same size as the one that sank the Titanic. Anyway, I left those 6 weeks pleased with myself and life continued until 2018…

In early summer 2018, I was mooching on my work computer…in my lunch break I have to add in case my boss sees this. I once again was feeling directionless, so what was I searching for?… some learning! Again, the usual suspects appeared, but one course stood out – Level 1 Certificate in BSL. Brilliant! I got it booked and strolled into the first lesson thinking I had totally got this after my 6-week course 4 years earlier. The clock struck 7pm, in walked my teacher fluently signing about the fire escape, and for the second time in my life, I was slapped in the face by the realisation I was still ignorant and wrong. I spent the most amazing academic year learning very basic conversational skills and earning my first certificate, but by then that was simply not enough. I had fallen in love with the language and the realisation that there was an entirely different deaf world out there that I wanted to explore.

2019… After realising that I wanted to explore the world of BSL further, I booked onto my Level 2 Certificate in BSL at Heathlands School in St Albans and this was where I was to receive not just a slap against ignorance, but a full-on punch in the face, when I met that year’s teacher for the first time. Although I have no doubt he wouldn’t mind a bit of free publicity, I will not name him, and instead, just state that as the first actual deaf person and teacher I had met he had me in awe. He showed me the wonder of the deaf community and the richness of deaf culture. He was so proud to be deaf, a concept I struggled with initially, and this was one of the best lessons he passed on. The impact of his insights into his world and mind cannot be overstated and it was not just the language but him who inspired me to go on to complete Level 3 with another outstanding teacher who has dedicated her life to the deaf community…level 4 begins September.

Now, I know you are thinking ok, but all this theory still hasn’t actually touched the deaf community, however, you’d be wrong! In 2020, I heard the news that a new employee starting in my office was deaf. On her first day, I bounded down the stairs and burst in on her frantically signing away. After the initial shock wore off, she beamed and a friendship was formed.

So, what does signing mean to me? It means a brick in a bridge, having ignorance knocked out of me, teaching heroes, beautiful friends, and a whole lot more people and life I can connect to. Where will me and BSL end up in the future? Who knows, but I can’t wait to find out.


(Please note: This blog has been written by an independent author not associated with Signature, any and all views expressed are that of the independent author who does speak on Signature’s behalf.)

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