I’ve been meaning to post about learning British sign language (BSL) for months now. I wanted to post it in BSL as a video blog (vlog) but, having borrowed my friend Ben’s webcam months ago, I’ve still not got round to even seeing if I can get it working, let alone actually sign coherent content in front of it. Another friend, Gareth, has started blogging about his experiences of learning BSL and prompted me to just pull my finger out and write a post. Maybe at some point I’ll record a translation in BSL. Maybe… 🙂

So, I started learning BSL in September 2006 when IBM put on courses for employees at Hursley. We had two hours of teaching every Wednesday morning for 30 weeks, which culminated in being CACDP BSL Level 1 certified.

Jeff, our tutor, is Deaf and taught us using a combination of signing, speech, writing on whiteboards, slides, and humour. Different tutors using different communication methods – for instance, BSL tutors don’t have to be deaf themselves, and some use speech and some don’t. Jeff doesn’t really lip-read so we got lots of practice at signing when talking to him during tea-breaks.

During the course, Jeff taught us a bit about Deaf culture as well as the language. This built on the deaf awareness workshop that we had attended early on in the course. In the workshop, another man (also deaf but deafened later in life; he speaks, uses a hearing aid, and lip-reads) taught us about what it’s like to be deaf, how (as hearing people) to communicate with deaf people, what the Deaf (signing) culture is, and attitudes of deaf people to their deafness.

I really enjoyed the course. It was difficult at first to deal with learning something without being able to write it down (BSL notation is a skill all to itself!). So learning to rely less on written notes was useful too. Learning BSL has been really useful, in particular in talking to my friend Ben at work who is profoundly deaf (without speech) and whose first language is BSL. It’s also handy in meetings or in the noisy canteen to be able to sign to colleagues. 🙂

I think it’s really cool that we could learn BSL at work. Aside from the actual language, learning about the Deaf culture and deafness in general has given me a different perspective on things and broadened my understanding of other people. In terms of my day-job, I have a better understanding of the issues around Accessibility.

For instance, here’s one of them….

Did you know that if BSL is your first language (and, therefore, English your second), written transcripts are not necessarily sufficient for a Deaf person to understand an audio recording***? The concepts and grammar of BSL are so different from English that moving between the two can be very difficult. That’s why you get BSL interpreters signing on TV (eg BBC News 24) instead of just providing subtitles.

A lot (a *lot*) of people don’t know that.

Update (16th July 2008):

***This is not to say that written transcripts are a waste of time, nor that Deaf people can’t generally understand written English! Also, if you can provide written transcripts, they provide a means for other people to translate those transcripts to other languages. So projects like this one are really cool: https://launchpad.net/~transcribers. For a start, a written transcription might one day be able to be converted automatically into BSL.