Last month it was Sign Language Awareness Week, as organised by the British Deaf Association. During this particular week I shared tips and images of signs on my personal Facebook page, spreading awareness of my love for sign language and encouraging my contacts to give signing a go if they hadn’t already had the chance.
Because of that, another parent at my children’s school came up to me recently and demonstrated fingerspelling her name with absolute joy on her face! It was such a small gesture but with great meaning. If only more people would have a go at signing, the world would become a much more inclusive place!
I love it when shopkeepers or assistants sign ‘thank you’ to me with a gleeful smile. It’s only one sign, I know, but I very much appreciate any daily use of BSL. It’s a bit like going to France and saying ‘bonjour’ to someone instead of using English. It feels very respectful to use someone’s language, however little of it you know.
The funny thing is though, I don’t remember the exact first time I learned to sign. I was brought up by hearing parents with a deaf sister, and although we all used spoken english, I was exposed to BSL at a young age because of my Dad’s involvement as Chair of our local deaf children’s society. We would often meet up with other families with deaf children and take part in fun events such as Laser Quest or a disco night. Because of that, I think I naturally picked up sign language bit by bit.
When I was 9 years old my family took me to the Isle of Wight on holiday and one evening we dined out at this quaint, old fashioned pub. On the other side of the room we noticed a young boy with his parents using sign language. He was about my age, so naturally I went into ‘show off’ mode. I began signing in a way that I knew would get his attention – waffling about chocolate cake, if you must know – and I recall how shocked and happy his face looked to see me and my sister!
This brief encounter meant so much to this boy and to me and my sister too. It was so lovely to connect with him and make friends with someone who we wouldn’t have had the confidence to speak to otherwise. We wouldn’t have known he was deaf either, if it wasn’t for his signing. His parents told mine how delighted their son was to see other children who were deaf – a rare occurrence on the Isle of Wight!
Throughout primary school, my best friend and I would often use BSL as our secret code. We would finger-spell to each other during lengthy assemblies to communicate that it was “B-O-R-I-N-G” and we would sign to each other in class when we were meant to be silent. I was the only deaf child at my primary school so the fact that my best friend and I had our own unique way of swapping messages that nobody else understood was pretty cool.
Around the same time my older sister had joined a sign choir at secondary school. She showed me the lyrics to a song they had been learning – ‘I believe’ – and I watched, mesmerised, as she depicted through sign language how ‘for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows.’ You can imagine the beautiful imagery, can’t you?
So when I went to the same secondary school with a deaf unit, I was keen to sign songs too. I wasn’t actually allowed to join the sign choir (boo!) but I did perform a signed song along with the rest of the unit for a charity fundraiser.
We signed ‘Paradise’ by Phil Collins and gosh, did I love it! I’d always adored music but I didn’t realise how gorgeously sign language could express the lyrics. I stood on that stage in front of hearing peers that I previously felt so awkward in front of, and as I signed the songs I felt a fire inside me. It was wonderful.
I even became quite close to one girl at secondary school who is also deaf and we spent a lot of our time dancing and signing along to songs during any free time we had. We even went on to win a major inter-state dance competition (as the only deaf dancers in the comp!) but I’ll save that tale for another article 😉
Anyhow, as my circle of deaf friends got wider and I got older I began using sign language more and more. I enjoyed the regional differences in signs, noticing Northern Irish signs, Scottish signs, London ones and more. I even fell in love with international sign by watching worldwide deaf artists.
When I attended deaf film festivals and I met artists from other countries, the one thing that would always connect us was sign language. We could always find a way to communicate, even if it was just by using each other’s native alphabet. How many hearing people can do that with those who live abroad?!
I suppose what I’m really trying to say is sign language has opened up my world. It’s given me a way of connecting with folk across the planet and it’s also been an artistic tool as I’ve looked for unique ways of expressing music.
I’ve signed songs since 2005 yet each new sign song I work on nowadays still excites me. I feel as though I don’t fully understand or appreciate a song until I’ve delved into its meaning and translated it into BSL. It really is amazing.
It goes without saying that there are an awful lot of benefits to learning and using sign language. From an educational point of view, for a deaf child who cannot access sound, sign language can give them a solid first language on which they can build up an understanding of English from. Language deprivation only happens when a child who cannot access sound with their ears isn’t taught sign language.
As someone who finds lipreading tiring, sign language also offers an effortless, direct form of communication. I don’t even have to raise my voice to the correct volume to be understood! You can also express things in sign language to which there isn’t a satisfactory English translation (if there was, it’d be a long winded explanation instead of a fabulously to-the-point sign!)
As an artist who works with music and sign language I marvel at how signs bring lyrics to life visually. I love how movements performed rhythmically can depict a beat, a pace, a melody. Sign language sure does add a whole new layer to music and the experience of it entirely. For people who have only experienced music with their ears, sign language translations – when done correctly 😉 – can be visually and energetically very moving.
Don’t take my word for it, though. If you’re reading this and you’re one of those people who have ‘always wanted to learn sign language” then quit delaying and get on it already. There’s a whole world full of sign language users and I’m sure you’d make their day by greeting them in their very own language.
What are you waiting for? J
All the best,
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