What does having BSL as a first language mean to the individual?
This is more common place to that of second generation deaf people who, like me, are born to a ready made sign, where all members of the family are already competent in and using sign language. To people like us, BSL is our first language just as much as English is to the immediate hearing English person.
However for the 90% of deaf people who are born to hearing families who may learn to sign much later on in life, failures of achieving efficient communication in the early years is perceived as being equivalent to that of being denied one’s own true language. Learning sign language later on in life often does not repair the psychological gaps in development that have been created from the lack of conversations at an early age.
Currently how do deaf children who use sign language progress both academically and socially?
This is a complex question, which will in turn receive a lengthy answer.
In order to try and improve the long history of poor education of deaf children, where they used to attend special schools that often reinforced the oral method of communication, educationalists are pushing the way forward for current trends of mainstreaming deaf children. While one wants to avoid segregation of deaf children from society, this often means isolating them from other deaf peers to that of a few, and none in many occasions. In the case of partially hearing children this is often achievable with the right level of support. However for deaf signing children, in order to give this ‘level of support’ schools often just provide a “communicator”. A communicator is one whose proficiency in BSL is equivalent to a 5/6yr old child’s proficiency in English, which is by no means comparable to fluency in a language. An interpreter is someone who is fluent in both languages and has trained for this at higher levels of education, ie University. Communicators are often perceived to be fluent in sign language by the lay person and also by professionals who want to save expenses. Many communicators are very poor at verbalising what the child is trying to communicate because of the lack of training required in stage 2 sign language courses which is the minimum requirement to be a communicator in a school these days. There is no Governmental funding for communicators to progress into fluency within sign language hence many are not able to progress.
I have, from my own observations, seen that many communicators display a poor level of communicative ability and yet still work in schools. Frequently, they are neither observed nor monitored, and none of the children have the maturity or ability to be able to indicate that they don’t understand the communicator. Often none of the senior staff or LEA members are fluent in sign language hence there is no one monitoring the quality of sign language provided to deaf signing children.
Not only is this happening in many places but not many of the hearing peers in the classroom are taught sign language, especially at secondary level, hence deaf children are limited in accessing information via the visual channel. My own PhD research emphasises the importance of access to informal conversations for social development, which will be published in Child Development next year. Communicators are often in the staff room etc while the children are at playtime/lunchtime. One wonders at the lack of access to conversations during these recreational periods, who is telling the deaf child what everyone is talking about?
Instead of mainstreaming excessively, the Government needs to pause and listen to deaf ex mainstreamers, take on board their comments and listen especially to the signing individuals.
There are only 4/5 signing all-deaf schools left now the closure of about 75 schools. These schools are now suffering from the presence of a majority of children who were not able to cope with mainstream schools, where the children display several social-emotive problems. As an aftermath, the school’s reputation changes to one of ‘special needs’ or ‘emotional needs’ school which is unfair to the portrayal of an ideal deaf school.
In my case, I went to an all deaf school where although the teachers only spoke orally, there were only 6 children per class room, a steady pace of learning and we could all socialise amongst ourselves at all recreational periods, using sign language informally. I now have long lasting friendships with many from my school.
What needs to be done is to increase the quality of education rather than minimise the quantity of expenses.
How can Deaf people benefit from the advantages of multilingualism?
This is a hard one to answer because deaf people are being referred to as one group in this question. I shall refer to signing deaf individuals as this is what I have the most relevant experience, however oral deaf or hard of hearing individuals will have their own experiences.
Within the BDA youth exchanges that I co-ordinate, I take a group of young deaf people to foreign countries and also host foreign groups here. Communication is so easy via International Sign Language, which is a form of sign language incorporating a lot of gestures as well as NVC, using the face etc. It is such a vibrant language, that the desire to learn foreign sign languages becomes evident. There is a lot of empowerment gained from these exchanges and other young people who used to be participants are now organising the next exchange with Japanese counterparts.
When I was at school I was told that we couldn’t study foreign languages because we needed to improve our English to that of our hearing counterparts. This was such a pity, the teachers could have encouraged us to learn foreign sign languages, and within the Internet there should be no reason why this is not possible these days.
What do non Deaf people get from learning to sign?