Threats or Evolutions? Responding to an SL First post

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Yesterday, my daily trawl around Twitter lead me to an article published by the brilliant SL First Magazine. It’s one of the more updated Deaf websites/blogs on the Internet, and often has a wide variety of things to read and watch. With a handy helping of BSL videos to boot, it ensures great access for a huge potential audience! Go have a look (and no, I’m not being paid to say this).

The article that caught my eye yesterday is entitled “BSL – Regional Variations – Respect and Knowledge of Linguistics” and immediately my ears perked up due to ‘BSL’ and ‘linguistics’ co-occurring. I fervently read the post, agreeing with the vast majority of it… but there are a few things about it that just don’t sit quite right from my point of view.

Disclaimer: I am neither Deaf nor deaf, and my skills as a BSL user are currently at what the UK examining board ‘Signature’ would refer to as ‘Level 3’ – not a beginner, but not yet an interpreter. However, my skills as a linguist and a researcher are far more advanced than my BSL communicative skills, therefore the views expressed here are coming from where my skills lie. Do not take this post as what should be done, as that is not my call to make.

The blog post mainly addresses concerns regarding “the erosion of some or all of the regional dialects of sign language.” For those who aren’t aware, BSL has remarkably diverse regional variations of signs due to – amongst other things – historical developments of the language. See this brief overview from UCL DCAL (with BSL interpretation) for more info. So diverse are these signs that, anecdotally, I’ve been told from researchers working on the BSL Corpus Project that they have potentially identified > 30 signs employed by BSL users to represent the concept of the colour ‘purple’!

The article states that “some of those who use (BSL) as a second language (…) find the regional dialects something of an inconvenience.” This is understandable: learning any new language is hard enough, but knowing that you may encounter over 30 ways of expressing the same concept is enough to make steam shoot out of any learners’ ears! Of course, the likelihood of having to recognise and use over 30 signs for one concept is, in my opinion, rare for any learner. Perhaps when you enter the realms of being an interpreter, then the chances may increase, but by then you are so entrenched in one of the many idiosyncrasies of this language (just as there are idiosyncrasies in many others, such as counting classifiers in Japanese or the extremely high number of case markers in Finnish) that it becomes expected. So it is an inconvenience perhaps to begin with, but perhaps not when BSL learners develop in their abilities.

The author goes on to state that “increasingly I seem to be challenged on some of the signs I use or ask the interpreter to use to help my understanding.” This interests me, as it seems to negate my previous paragraph. However, as I am not a BSL interpreter, I cannot comment with authority. Nevertheless, having interpreted several spoken languages in previous employment, I can say that you often come across words, phrases, etc. in another language that you will have never heard before. While this may be initially confusing yet inevitable (I’m sure you can’t know every possible word and word combination in a language!), I’d never tell the native user that they were wrong. In fact, it’s been said to me and other learners countless times in BSL lessons that ‘different’ is not equal to ‘wrong,’ so I’m curious as to where this comes from. Interesting, I have been told many times that the sign I use is wrong not by other hearing people or interpreters, but by everyday Deaf BSL users. In fact, other hearing BSL learners have joined me in the collective “ahhh, that’s interesting!” moment when we learn a new regional sign (this is not an attempt to push any semblance of ‘blame,’ but to reaffirm that these opinions exist from within the community, too!) If there are any BSL interpreters reading, feel free to leave a comment below!

When extrapolating the issue beyond interpreters and into the realms of social media, the author mentions that  “a whole range of questions are asked through these self-help groups and the replies often contain a range of advice, some of which is based on deep-rooted knowledge, understanding and daily use of cultural Deaf BSL and other advice based on what someone might have learnt in the classroom at Level 2 a week ago.” This is true, and perhaps this is a danger of social media: unless you know who’s typing on that keyboard, you take what you’re given, and as is often the case for several learners (from what I’ve seen, at least) the quickest response – whether or not it has come from a Deaf BSL user – is the one that is deemed the ‘correct’ answer. While social media provides an excellent platform for people to connect, the reality is that there will be a mixture of people from all walks of life. It could be argued that a system of admins could take the lead in responding to any questions, but then that leads me to ask: who would be the admins? What makes them qualified or ‘better to lead’ than others? And will this online hierarchy actually cause more damage than good when disagreements occur?

The point is also made that if any learner is unsure of a regional sign, the most reliable point of call will be the BSL tutor, and I totally agree with this. Each of my tutors so far have been Deaf BSL users with exceptionally in-depth understandings of regional variations. Plus, you’re in face-to-face communication with them, which is perfect to ensure that the information is coming from an expert! (However, if you’re a learner reading right now, don’t be shocked if your tutor is unsure of the sign… I mean, you may be a native user of English, but would you immediately know the meaning of “subdermatoglpyhic” if you weren’t interested in biology?)

On the theme of teachers, the author indicates that a “threat to BSL generally and regional variations specifically, is the introduction of sign language from other countries into the teaching of BSL here in the UK. Students taught by teachers whose first language is American Sign Language or AUSLAN (sic) come into my class telling me time and again that I am wrong with my signs.” I have to tread carefully here… but I’m concerned by the use of the word ‘threat.’ While I agree that any language would be best taught by a native user, it does not mean that all native users would teach. For instance, I have taught French, Spanish and Japanese to high-level language learners before, but I am from the UK. I know a variety of people from across the world who teach English and whose first language is not English, yet their skills as teachers are impeccable. Likewise, I know many French people whose French is (unsurprisingly) outstanding, yet they would never wish to teach it. I believe that the best way to teach a language that isn’t your own is to not only feel confident and proficient enough to teach it, but to also check with native users in order to ensure that any obvious errors or questionable kinks are ironed out. The undertones from this quote, however, feels as though it’s saying “native BSL users should only teach BSL,” and I’m not sure how much I can agree with that.

In continuing the difficulties reported by the authors’ hearing students of BSL with regards to regional variation, the author states “I suppose that is why there is no longer regional spoken dialects in Newcastle, Liverpool, London, Cornwall, Wales, Birmingham, Scotland, and other areas in the UK. Perhaps it is why Welsh and Gaelic were allowed to die as languages, the complexity of different regional languages making things far too difficult!!” This I disagree with wholeheartedly! Having relatives dotted around the UK, I can say that my dialect, my choice of words and even my attitude changes across the country. Here are a few Birmingham-specific words and sayings, a link to the Cornish Language Partnership (in Cornish) and another to BBC Radio Cymru (in Welsh), the latter of which is still undergoing revitalisation after near-death. While it may be that the differences between dialects, accents, and to some extent languages, are now less-marked than before, they are still alive and well, thus this argument cannot be used.

And this brings me onto the crux of the post… how is a ‘threat’ to language different to an ‘evolution’ in language? (Once again, I reiterate: please don’t see this as the hearing guy telling the Deaf community what it should do; this is me coming at it from a linguistic angle!) While the French have the “Academie Française” when it comes to language preservation, there are still going to be changes in French that will come from a multitude of sources that, if they gain enough traction and use, will become part of the language. Many attitudes exist of “the *blank* of today are destroying our language,” where *blank* could stand for a number of external or internal forces… but this is what happens. Words change, get introduced, die out, and sometimes become resurrected. While some view it as a threat to identity, the truth is that language change is a linguistic reality. We have at our disposal a resource with almost infinite possibilities for novel creations, so the likelihood of things staying the same are minimal. Even for BSL, videos from decades ago show how prolific fingespelling was, yet most informal communication rarely uses fingerspelling at all nowadays. Is this a threat, or an evolution?

To summarise, I agree with the author on the whole: the diversity of regional variation within BSL is as remarkable as it is confusing. I don’t believe, however, that BSL will become ‘standardised’ across the UK: the Deaf community are fiercely proud of their language and heritage, and with such power, I think any attempts at removing this variation completely would be met with huge defiance. Nevertheless, that is not to say that such marked variation in signs will be around forever. As new technologies improve, and a greater number of people learn and use BSL from around the world – both hearing and Deaf – I’m certain the language will diversify in different ways. While it is annoying to be told by anyone, no matter what language you use, that you’re speaking or signing ‘incorrectly,’ this is a matter than can be quickly rectified with a little knowledge exchange.

But language will evolve, whether it’s wanted or not.

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