After British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter Tara Asher signed Stormzy’s headline Glastonbury gig last year, she wrote on Twitter: “The more people that learn BSL, the closer we’ll be to achieving equality for the deaf community. If you don’t know sign language, be an ally and learn sign language,” – which is exactly why you’re reading this article.
Learning sign language as a family is an important step towards creating a more inclusive society for deaf people, breaking down communication barriers and teaching children empathy. BSL is wonderfully expressive and reliant on facial expressions, placement and gestures to describe how appearance, mood and feelings, so for a hearing child, learning sign language will boost their confidence and communication skills.
Emma Fraser, Teacher of the Deaf at the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS), said: "Children can acquire a signed language in the same way as they acquire spoken language, and can learn both at the same time. This means that in their early years, it’s important to give them access to both spoken and signed language where possible.
"It’s important to remember, however, that it’s never too late to start learning BSL. Signing, even at a basic level, will help deaf people of all ages to feel more included.”
Make BSL Personal
Structure the signs you learn around your home life or the activities, books, TV programmes and games you enjoy as a family. To use the game 'Guess Who?' as an example – make a list of adjectives describing each person's physical features – red hat, blue eyes, black hair and so on. Next, go online to a website like SignBSL or BSL SignBank and find the signs to learn. Try learning the signs for the different hobbies you do together or ingredients for your favourite dinners. You might find this helps the family remember each sign because they're more personal to you.
Learning two new signs a day and practising them cumulatively means you'll know nearly 60 signs by the end of each month. Most people learn BSL starting with the basics like numbers, colours, household items and days of the week. Stick with the basics until you've mastered them and remember the signs, no matter how long you think it's taking. Find inspiration around the home too when looking for new words to sign. Check out sign dictionaries and websites like Deaf Books which have free printable downloads.
Another tip from the NDCS is to play lots of visual games when you're out as a family-like 'I Spy' to practise simple signs and fingerspelling too. Children love taking photographs so make it their job to be the roaming photographer and let them snap whatever takes their interest. Once home, you can go through them and have a go at describing what's happening by sign. Don’t worry about trying to be perfect, it’s more about getting used to describing things in ways we don’t as hearing people so using more of your face and body.
Create A Challenge
Joanne Baker's son Cody, 10, is fundraising for the NDCS as they both go through an online beginners’ sign language course. They saw the 2.6 challenge on Facebook with one of the suggestions being to learn how to fingerspell the alphabet. "It was perfect timing because Cody was already learning it." A sign language challenge could be kept within the family by simply signing words or fingerspelling the alphabet to each other and counting how many signs each sibling gets right. Task your kids with creating a sign language tournament of some kind so it becomes a fun family competition.
Meet Hard of Hearing People
It can be nerve-racking to throw yourself into meeting deaf people when you're new to sign language, but they're so receptive to people trying. Learning a signed language is the same as a spoken one – either use it or lose it – and the best way to observe sign language is from native BSL users during a conversation. Deaf BSL teacher, Kirsty Gray, said: "Learning BSL can be made a lot easier and you'll become more fluent by mixing with the Deaf community, meeting Deaf people and attending Deaf events." If you can find the time, be brave and take the kids to an event at your nearest deaf centre or check deaf charity websites to see what events are coming up which are family-friendly.
Teaching sign language to children should be visual. YouTube is like a one-stop-shop for all genres of content and there are plenty of sign language tutorials. Most of them are really exciting to watch from both deaf and hearing presenters so they'll appeal to children and teenagers, who will find lots of young deaf adults with their own YouTube channels. Another thing you'll find plenty of on YouTube are sign songs and signed stories. Signed stories bring traditional picture books to life and sign songs do the same for popular music. Marrying the sign with the closed captions or song lyrics will also build up your vocabulary. Google deaf schools too and see what videos they're uploading.
You'd be surprised at the number of programmes and films created by, and for, the deaf community. Most of us are only used to BBC's See Hear as it's been on our screens since the 80s, but BSL Zone is full of content too, including for children. Although websites like Hearing Like Me and Limping Chicken don’t produce many videos themselves, they write about deaf culture so are a great resource to find out the names of deaf filmmakers, actors, and creators.
Book A Course
Level 1 and 2 BSL courses are widely available at deaf centres, adult education centres, colleges and universities. Learning will be more structured as you'll be working towards a qualification so your standard of sign language will become higher. This will help you become fluent over time. BSL courses will often be a person's first interaction with a deaf person as a lot of the tutors are deaf so the signing you learn will be accurate. Usually, course providers will let you pay in instalments if you can't afford to pay the fees all at once, and concession prices are available too. Make sure your course is accredited by Signature before signing up.