BSL on the BBC – Offensive or otherwise?

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As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the awareness of sign languages (particularly BSL) seems to have increased heavily over the past year. That could very easily be due to my involvement in research, but we’ll stick with this as an opening gambit for now…Whether it was interpreters in the US pulling viewer focus, or Eurovision Song Contest sign language interpreters getting into then rhythm with their signing, or even Santa Claus using the visual-spatial modality to communicate with children, it seems like sign language is appearing more and more in the news and in discussions online.

The BBC have also played a part in this. This month, they have broadcast (to my knowledge) two videos containing stars of the small screen using BSL to wish viewers a Merry Christmas:

 

 

I think these are pretty damn cool. There have been ups and downs for the Deaf community this year – just as there have been for many, many other sections of society – but to see BSL being used and broadcast across the country is, in my opinion, wonderful.

…of course, what would life be without the disagreements?

A thread on Twitter not too long ago started mentioning that these attempts at using BSL are “belittling a language/culture.” In addition, anyone who has learned BSL to level 2 or above will see that some (but not all) of the signs are misarticulated, leading to calls that these attempts are “disrespectful” and display “tokenism.”

After speaking to current sign language learners, sign linguists and a couple of members of the local Deaf community… we all had to disagree with this. Here’s why:

These are people who have probably never signed once in their lives, trying their best (or at least in the time they have allocated to them during recording) to present a message in a language very different to their own. While some of these signs may seem ‘easy,’ it may surprise those who are natural signers but who have never taught it to see how hard such mimicry can be (e.g. you can’t see yourself producing this seemingly simple string of signs and you’d have to mirror the production from the ‘teacher’… this is cognitively taxing for any newcomer!). It also makes me wonder: what if they’d broadcast this message in a number of other languages spoken in the UK, but omitted BSL? Would there have been consternation from those complaining, for the fact that BSL is being ‘ignored?’ Plus, I’m sure those in the videos would have tripped up on “Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia” a few times, and the pronunciation would probably be totally off, but that isn’t the point: you don’t have to be a fluent speaker to get your message across.

Ask yourself this: when you go to another country and attempt to learn a few phrases, it’s highly likely that your intonation will be off, or your syllable formations will be somewhat clunky, or your verb conjugations will send the listener travelling through to the future as you try and say something that happened in the past. Does that mean you’re being disrespectful in your verbal mangling of the language… or perhaps worthy of praise for giving it a go and trying to accommodate your communication to others, despite not getting everything right? And indeed, when it comes to BSL, what is ‘right?’ This latter point is especially pertinent with the amount of lexical variation in BSL and the potential for phonological variation (i.e. minor differences in how the signs are formed either in movement or hand configuration/orientation).

But more importantly: if you’re a BSL user, when you watched these videos, did you understand it? When a 4-year-old writes to Santa Claus, getting some spellings wrong, using different letter sizes and missing words out, do you get out your red pen and correct it while chastising the child for being disrespectful to those who speak English fluently? Or do you look for the meaning? Do you look past the fact that this is a language learner who is going to make mistakes? Do you understand that this child isn’t displaying tokenism, but is rather to communicate in the best way that they can at that time?

These videos are, above all, gestures of goodwill via communication in a language that deserves a lot more attention. It is not their BSL 103 assessment. They are not training to be interpreters. They are trying to reach out in a language they have probably never used before. So let’s cut them some slack, okay?

We’ve all got to start somewhere.

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