When I go over to Europe, like many other travellers I’m astounded at the amount and diversity of people who can speak in English. I have schoolboy French, cafe Spanish and a strong enough grasp of language theory to read signage, but there’s no denying my lack of fluency and in particular my inability to hear what they say back to me in another language. And that’s not because I can’t understand what they are saying it’s because I can’t hear what they are saying to understand them. Being profoundly deaf means relying on a narrow range of exceptionally unclear and underpowered sound frequencies alongside lipreading. Throw in another language with its nuanced sounds & new phonemes and the processing load is so much that I’m still trying to decipher their opening ‘estoy’ by the time they’ve finished their speech.
Which brings me to the idea of introducing a GCSE in British Sign Language (BSL). I have a confession: I don’t sign – mainly because I wasn’t brought up in a deaf community. I was one of the first in the country to attend mainstream school when all others with my ‘condition’ were shunted off to special school. It wasn’t much fun. Being in the top set for every subject should have gifted me the Education Endowment Fund confirmed top set uplift. However, the downside was no Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENDCO), no teaching assistants, teachers who mumble, teachers who sat you at the back, teachers who only taught in one channel (my thanks to the dual coders of today – you are helping the deaf pupils) no fellow deaf people and most certainly no BSL anywhere. Which is why I don’t sign. I’m a hearing person in a hearing world who doesn’t hear well rather than have what the deaf community call an ‘I am deaf’ identity.
Today, signing is still uncommon. If a deaf child comes into the school then an Educational Health Care Plan can pay for a signer. Good luck with getting one of them. Better learn to be a lawyer at the same time as signing. And then finding a school that wants to pay the first £6,000 of your support. And then you’ve still got to contend with bearded mumbling teachers teaching in front of brightly lit windows (just because the deaf pupil has a slow, asynchronous second channel doesn’t mean they don’t need the first channel – ever watched live out of sync subtitles?).
Which brings me back to my opening bit about the Europeans being so good at speaking English. Nick Gibb has recently supported the introduction of GCSE BSL. You can imagine it would be quite a popular take up. Modern Languages would benefit from having this socially inclusive newcomer in its midst. A language that learners can use at home and abroad.
BSL is a modern language in its own right and one which is unique. Not because it is signed, but because it lives in perpetual fear of death. Most deaf pupils have hearing parents. They all have to learn BSL as a second language. BSL is only taught by deaf parents to deaf children if the hearing loss is passed on. That’s a very small proportion of the people who are deaf. The language is also struggling due to the migration of deaf children from special schools where deaf communities operate to mainstream schools where deaf communities are not in operation. If they are lucky, they’ll meet a few other deaf people and have access to a signer (as well as a career in law).
If BSL GCSE gets introduced and indeed if the take up is strong this changes BSL as a language. I saw a video where the MP Angela Rayner was talking to her constituents and when one of them was deaf she switched to signing (she has BSL level 2) seamlessly. That’s the vision of BSL – it helps the deaf person access the hearing world. That’s how we should look at Special Needs and Disabilities (SEND) theoretically. I’m only deaf if I can’t access the societal thing which I am experiencing. Disability has liminality. It comes in and out of existence depending on the context. That liminality can be affected by making the context more inclusive – which is why we love all the Europeans speaking English (even though we make our own efforts to learn one or more European languages). When everyone is speaking English we can, as monoglot English speakers, access their society. They even speak English to each other in multi-national cosmopolitan areas – it’s the unifying lanaguge for them all.
There we have the reason for introducing BSL GCSE (and maybe even some at a younger age?) – we can bring that European experience for the monoglot English to the deaf – and keep BSL alive at the same time. And it’s happening – the GCSE will come in, we will find teachers for it and pupils will learn it. It will be fascinating to see it unfold. Mind you, I really ought to learn to sign…