English Versus BSL? By Mervyn James

I think a lot of deaf are upset at the command of grammar and written English when they get responses that way. Deaf annoyed when lengthy text responses go in to debates and discussions, when maybe their sole reliance is on sign not text as such.

At a number of levels including captioned TV and films etc. Some deaf can still struggle and the age-old system deaf used in their social clubs, of ‘Chinese Whispers’  still seems a valid way for them to pass on information to each other when some meeting or other has gone to length to discuss some involved issue.

Some attach their love of BSL grammar and signs, to the argument to oppose, but basically we should just look at it as horses for courses. If you ‘dumb down’ (and this is a serious issue with some hearing interpreters and others), it is asking for trouble from some deaf, because they feel insulted. If you use good English and grammar, some may well struggle with it, it is sod’s law, and you will not win.

Over 40 years’ experience with signing deaf that I have, including deaf club attendances and socialising with them, the longer and more detailed your responses or technical input, the more uncertain and disinterested they become. That simple statement will be seen by some as patronising, but when you are faced with 30-40 or so deaf people you are faced with deaf with academic abilities ranging from poor to excellent, and everything between, but only one level of skill/communication comes from the centre. It is inevitable a fair percentage of those in attendance then will not follow a lot of the details at all.

However during observations I did point out, that when they went straight to sign only communications, there were actually huge gaps in translation there too, and they were not getting all. Deaf purists brushed it off as ‘BSL Concepts’ include detail too, but they do not explain how, Interpreters more accurately said they pitch to their education abilities and observations on what they felt the deaf client can take in. However having done that, where do they inform the necessary areas of the details they think the deaf client won’t understand?

Of course, here is no identification of those deaf able to follow these mysterious BSL concepts, a lot just go with what they can see via the simple signs used. The BSL dictionary was actually panned by the deaf as appearing to be manufactured by hearing people, and signs invented on the spot to fill space, there have been many additions and clarification since, and the age-gap means under 30s may not be able to follow ‘new’ BSL effectively now.

Interpreters and lay people, tend to Stick to the highlights omit ‘boring details’, but, the devil is IN the detail isn’t it? I distinctly recall attending an local authority meeting, with a sign interpreter in attendance who stopped half-way through the meeting stating she hadn’t the signs available for some of the technical terms being used, and the deaf there were struggling to follow as she tried desperately to explain the terms another way……. It is amazing many deaf do not realise Interpreters specialise too, via court interpreting only, and in schools, and in health areas. Do they insist the suitably qualified terp is there? Do they KNOW the terp specialities?

In Health areas, very few actually are skilled enough in signing medical terminology. The approach? They ‘dumb down’, make it simple to understand, good? Or maybe not if a vital fact passes the deaf patient by. If we watch BSL on TV, is that the same BSL used on the street? Maybe it is not! There is a system of ‘media signing’ which is designed to make the most access to the most deaf, but that has been debated as accurate or widely understandable, because of UK regional differences in sign, and the subtitles are usually the ‘bridge’ that saves the BSL day. Basically near all BSL Interpreters are hearing and from hearing education, even subconsciously they will avoid the ‘grammar’ of BSL without being aware. It is not a fault as such.

Interpreters DON’T accurately adjudge the academic skills of their client, some may only meet that client 5-10 minutes before they start, no time at all to establish the right ‘pitch’ or level of sign to that client. That is why deaf people prefer same terps all the time, so that the rapport is there and it helps both parties to follow, these days, you cannot rely on having the same people all the time.

We live in an English written/speaking and spoken world, maybe BSL is just for the purists?

By Mervyn James who can also be found “At The Rim”.

Mr Mervyn James.

Mr Mervyn James.