Signing up a storm?

Not for the first time, the Eurovision Song Contest has managed to draw attention to language issues in a revealing way.

We all know the controversies over the years about countries choosing to sing in English. If you thought that wasn’t happening so much nowadays, the 2017 final featured 42 songs, of which 35 were sung entirely in English – at 83%, that’s the highest proportion ever.

You may be less aware, though, that Eurovision has also offered its own unique window on the place of sign language in society.

Back in 2005, the Latvian entry ‘The War Is Not Over’ featured a final chorus in which the performers, Valters & Kaža, left their stools and laid down their acoustic guitars to sign alongside their signing. It’s not clear why. The song received the famous douze points from IrelandLithuania and Moldova, and finished 5th overall.

Things nearly got more interesting in 2009 when a Deaf artist, Signmark, competed in Finland’s national Eurovision qualifications. Signmark (real name: Marko Vuoriheimo), who was born into a signing family, performed ‘Speakerbox’ with a hearing singer. But the song ended up in second place in the Finnish competition and so narrowly missed out on being chosen for the grand Eurovision final. Nevertheless, Signmark went on to great things and goes down in history as the first deaf person to sign a recording contract with an international record company (Warner Music).

In 2015, the focus shifted from signing performers to a signing interpreter. In Sweden, the national competition was presented with Tommy Krångh delivering Swedish Sign Language renditions alongside each song. His work was so popular that there were demands for him to appear for the grand final, too

And what’s the story in 2018?

This year, the UK has decided to experiment with signing. SuRie, our representative in Lisbon, has recorded a British Sign Language version of her track ‘Storm’. The BBC proudly reported that she learnt it “in just a few hours”. SuRie has, we’re told, “been wanting to learn BSL for a long time” and jumped at the chance to pursue this when a fan sent her a video of himself signing ‘Storm’. The BBC’s Newsround said: “She got in touch and asked if he would teach her how to sign the lyrics too”.

The initiative soon started to attract interest. A clip was released on Twitter, but not everyone was enthusiastic, with one person even saying “this makes me want to poke my eyes out”. The singer anxiously replied “I realise there’s tons more to BSL than I was able to portray here and that I have a helluva lot more to learn”. More discussion followed, spinning out – that’s social media, folks! – into strongly-worded antagonism and much taking of sides.

A 24-hour Twitter poll summarised three stances that were emerging. Respondents voted as follows to the proposition that SuRie’s BSL version should be seen as either:

  • Inspiring: a model of inclusivity and artistic creativity – 16%
  • Harmlessly well-intentioned but misguided – 60%
  • Cynical, crass, ignorant and disrespectful – 24%

So what’s going on here? And why is this a LifeinLINCS issue?

Well, as a department, LINCS teaches both spoken and signed languages. And we specialise in both translation and interpreting studies, and intercultural research. The SuRie ‘Storm’-in-a-teacup touches on every part of this.

British Sign Language (BSL) wasn’t even understood to be a language until the mid-1970s. Ten years later, it started to be taught in earnest. And within 20 years of that point, it had become one of the most popular adult education subjects in the UK. Almost all of that teaching was being led by Deaf BSL users.

Now, thanks in part to a Heriot-Watt initiative, plans are afoot to offer BSL as a full language subject in schools across Scotland. LINCS’ own Dr Ella Leith is currently on secondment to the Scottish Qualifications Authority, coordinating a project to develop BSL qualifications for high schools. Exciting times!

But this starts to show why SuRie’s BSL work has frustrated some. BSL simply can’t be learned meaningfully in two hours: “It’s a complex language, you know” noted one tweeter, “way beyond swear words and song lyrics and Trump’s sign name”. The professionalisation of BSL teaching has been pursued for over 30 years. Reversing the historic oppression of the language has been wrapped up with highlighting, as teachers, Deaf people for whom BSL is a preferred language.

Then there’s the question of the quality of the BSL translation. LINCS students work their socks off not for hours but for years (eg on our main undergraduate programme to develop the ability to produce effective BSL output from English source material. And they wouldn’t start with artistic matter like song lyrics, either!

Above all, perhaps, an opportunity has been missed to do some valuable intercultural work. A Eurovision entry that had been seriously planned with both sung and signed content, developed by artists with profound knowledge of the underlying issues of language and heritage, would have been much less likely to have been viewed as ‘cultural appropriation’ at work.

Can there be a happy ending to this story?

Eurovision reached over 180 million television viewers in 2017. Sending any kind of message to such an audience about effective engagement with sign language and with considered, high-quality translation would have to be welcome. The big prize, though, would be to show clearly that Deaf people aren’t so much “in need” of some crumbs of “access” from the hearing world’s table, but are contributors to society with extraordinary artistic, linguistic and cultural riches to share.

LINCS’ own work on the intangible heritage of the Deaf community reinforces that there are many creative artists using BSL. The Scottish Government’s National Plan for BSL envisages “promotion” of BSL as part of the shared cultural life of the nation. We’re working to get that message out through initiatives like the current two-year Royal Society of Edinburgh project to construct a Deaf Heritage network which can feed BSL inspiration into national cultural institutions.

SuRie appears to have quickly realised that there was more to all of this than meets the eye, saying: “Probs best if I leave it to the professionals, I really never intended to disappoint anyone in the community… but I realise I’m out of my depth and I do apologise”. Perhaps the very best thing she could do would be to turn this outcome on its head by coming out as a true champion for BSL in society and the arts. Now that really would send a clear signal.

Professor Graham H. Turner

LINCS post-graduate researchers hold first symposium

 

Wednesday 25th April was the occasion of the first LINCS PGR Symposium.  Over the course of the day, nine post-graduates presented papers to an audience of their peers, lecturers and professors from within the department.  Reactions were universally positive, succinctly summarised by this tweet by @HW_LifeinLINCS:

Incredibly insightful and thought-provoking presentations.

Contributors ranged from those who had only recently started their PhD journey, to two who are busy writing up their theses with a view to submitting the finished works at the end of the summer.  Research interests were grouped in four panels:  translation, language and identity, sign language interpreting, and spoken language interpreting.  Sites of research ranged from the Heriot-Watt University classroom to Faroese fish-processing factories, by way of theatres and mental health clinics, court-rooms and police custody suites, Google translate and the Galician community in London.

The papers delivered on the day were as follows:

Paola Ruffo: Literary Translators’ perceptions of their role and attitudes towards technology in contemporary society

Nga-Ki Mavis Ho: Academic translation from English into Chinese: Increasing awareness and handling of academic rhetoric by the introduction of the Graduation system

Elisabeth Holm: New Speakers of Faroese and the Sociolinguistics of Labour Market Access and Participation

Michael Richardson: Deaf and hearing theatre – creating an intercultural third space

Alex Dayan- Fernandez: Reinventing transnational networks: Contemporary language activism, linguistic ideologies, and cultural identity (re)constructions of the Galician diaspora in London

Emmy Kauling: “He’s a professional *something*” – Co-constructing professional identities through interpreted professional discourse.

Christopher Tester: Perceptions of the Role and Function of Deaf Interpreters Working in the Court of Law

Rob Skinner: Ap-proximately there:  Video-mediated interpreting services at Police Scotland

Natalia Rodríguez Vincente: Rapport management in interpreter-mediated mental healthcare encounters: a shared responsibility?

Inevitably you can find more information about all these papers on Twitter – post-graduates can be active tweeters!  Look for #HWPGRsymp18.

The value of the day lay not only in the opportunity for students to present their papers, but also in the responses those papers stimulated.  Each presentation was followed by lively questioning and debate and the day was notable for the supportive and collaborative atmosphere created by all the participants.  Post-graduates were inspired to think about new aspects of their work, and everybody developed greater insight into the breadth of interesting research that is being carried out across the department.  Importantly, we were able to make links between individual research projects that will lead to further discussion where interests or methods overlap.

In summary, the PGR Symposium was an important and successful experience for all involved.  There have already been calls for it to become a regular feature of the LINCS calendar, perhaps twice a year, to ensure all PGRs have a chance to present their work in the safe environment that the symposium offers.  Personally, I hope not to be here for the next one (I’m one of those working towards submission of my thesis in a few months), but I very much look forward to seeing my own Twitter feed filled by photographs and summaries of the research undertaken by future cohorts of LINCS PGRs.

Michael Richardson

LINCS PGR Representative

The Manchester terror drill – and why we must stop linking Arabic with fanatics

This article was first published in ‘The Conversation’ https://theconversation.com/uk

by Máiréad Nic Craith

Greater Manchester Police staged a mock attack featuring a suicide bomber late on the night of Monday May 9. It began at the Trafford Centre shopping complex when a man in black walked into the centre of the main foyer and shouted “Allahu Akbar” – “God is great” – several times at the crowd. Moments later, an explosion rocked the food hall. The 800 volunteers dropped to the floor or ran into cafes and shops screaming for help, many of them made up to look as if they had horrific injuries.

The reaction has been largely negative, with many making the point that using the words “Allahu Akbar” reinforced the stereotype that terrorists are primarily Muslim. They rightly said that in reality, anyone can be a terrorist. By enforcing the Muslim stereotype, the exercise divided rather than united people and could increase anti-Muslim hate crime.

The police force was quick to put up a senior officer to respond. Stressing that “Allahu Akbar” was not scripted, he called the phrase “unacceptable” and apologised on behalf of the force since it “vocally linked this exercise with Islam”.

End of story? Actually an important point has been overlooked. The commentary has focused on the fact that the attack associated Islam and terrorism, but something else was associated with terrorism, too – the Arabic language. Spoken by an estimated 422m people, it is one of the most common languages in the world. Have we become so used to associating politics with particular languages that the matter is not considered exceptional or worthy of discussion?

UK connotations

This issue goes much wider than Arabic. Staying with the UK, other languages are associated with political ideologies, too. I worked in Northern Ireland for 11 years and could not fail to notice the political stereotypes around the Irish language. I worried that my beautiful Irish language name would generate the perception that my intentions were political – although friends assured me that given I was from the South, the issue did not arise.

Since the days of the hunger striker Bobby Sands, who taught himself and other fellow prisoners Irish in the H-Blocks, Sinn Féin has often been accused of politicising Irish. Linking Irish with political intent makes it uncomfortable for some people without nationalist aspirations to speak it in public.

Last year, for instance, the Belfast Telegraph columnist Claire Harrison wrote that she stopped her university course in Irish partly because of “a growing discomfort with a general assumption that I was a raving republican”.

Sinn Féin conference in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Niall Carson

The perception that Irish is political has been greatly enhanced by politicians from non-nationalist parties seizing the opportunity to score a point at the expense of the Irish culture. Linda Ervine, a prominent unionist Irish-language speaker, last year accused Nelson McCausland of the unionist DUP of politicising the Irish language in exactly the same manner he claims republicans are guilty of. It’s not as if it has to be this way. Many of my friends in Northern Ireland who speak Irish on a regular basis do not associate it with politics and are motivated only by a love of Irish culture.

Over the Irish Sea in Scotland, we are seeing signs of something similar. In my recent TEDx talk on living heritage I noted that Scots has gained a new visibility and credibility as the culture has become more self-confident in the wake of the 2014 independence referendum. Pro-independence daily The National now features a weekly column in Scots, for instance. Yet the emergence of Scots cannot escape the political undertones. As the culture scholar Scott Hames wrote a few months ago, the “question of Scots is now becoming hyper-politicised in crude and distorting ways”. He argued that “national identity is undoubtedly part of the picture; but it needn’t be the whole picture”.

Many of us have heard the slogan that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. Languages now considered “neutral” or “official” have often gained their visibility and credibility with the support of political structures – a fact often forgotten at the beginning of the 21st century.

So how to respond? The Irish-language activist Aodán Mac Poilín has suggested that, rather than attempting to depoliticise languages and break their link with specific communities, we should think about making them appropriate for many communities and in many spheres – multi-politicising them, if you will. With this in mind, it is good to read about the latest Arabic initiative in London, in which “Subhan Allah” (or “Glory be to God”) is appearing on posters on the sides of the red buses. This initiative by Islamic Relief is designed to change the negativity about Islam and foster understanding between different communities.

Sadiq Khan. Dominic Lipinski/PA

A few days ago, London elected its first Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan. The most recent winner of the Great British Bake Off was the Muslim Nadiya Hussain. With more events like these and fewer ill-conceived terror drills and such like, it raises the possibility of multi-politicising Arabic. Perhaps there will come a time when we don’t immediately think of terrorism when we hear the word “Allah”. Perhaps we might think instead about justice, human rights and good food.

RADAR Workshop: From Hate Speech to Hate Communication

“From hate speech to hate communication:
How racism is produced and reflected through communicative practices”
Free training workshop
16th and 17th June 2016
George Davies Lecture Theatre, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh

 

RADAR – Regulating AntiDiscrimination and AntiRacism (Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Programme JUST/2013/FRAC/AG/6271) is an EU-funded programme that brings together nine partners from six countries. The project’s aim is to raise awareness and develop the necessary tools to identify and tackle hate-motivated and hate-producing communication, which have a racialised dimension. This will be achieved through training activities and events. The project will also provide a handbook as well as comparative studies and analyses. For more information on the project’s objectives, deliverables and individual work packages, please visit the project website and register on our platform.

RADAR workshops are being organised in the six partner countries (Italy, Finland, The Netherlands, Poland, Greece and the UK) from April to June 2016 to test the training material developed as well as the training approach. An international workshop will then be held in September in Perugia, Italy, drawing on the knowledge and expertise gained from the local pilot events.

Who is this workshop for?

  • professionals and trainees in the legal sector, the police, social workers, charity workers, people working in local and national authorities, policy makers, volunteers interested in ethnic equality and diversity
  • trainers interested in participating in the trial / pilot implementation of the proposed training approach and have open access and reusability of the available material.
  • people who have experienced racism or xenophobia and are interested in sharing their experiences and leading discussions.

What are the workshop aims?

  • Understand hate-motivated and hate-producing communication practices. Such an understanding can be empowering for (potential) targets of discrimination or hate communication. It can also help professionals to make better judgments, react effectively to racist and xenophobic behaviours and attitudes and ultimately help to prevent racism, xenophobia, discrimination and exclusion.
  • Recognise explicit as well as implicit forms of prejudice, racism and xenophobia, as well as the situations from which they might arise.
  • Develop skills to produce non-biased and inclusive communication.
  • Develop competence in communicating with people with culturally (and socially) different habits and behaviour models.
  • Distinguish between verbal, paraverbal, nonverbal and visual messages, how they are combined and embodied in communicative practices.
  • Become familiar with communicative techniques, strategies and procedures that apply to different situations and contexts.

In this way, participants may acquire useful tools for identifying and preventing hate-producing and hate-motivated communication practices and, ultimately, hate crimes. Participants should also be able to transfer the approach, either by putting it into practice in other contexts or, in the case of trainers, by training others.

What is the workshop content?

Two main themes are covered in the workshop:
(1)      language use in legal texts (laws and judgments) and its social implications
(2) communication practices reflecting and (re)producing racism, xenophobia, discrimination, exclusion.

We consider the following communicative practices among others: advertisement pictures, promotional and other videos, talkshows, written texts, in particular newspaper articles, and social media posts.

There will be discussion groups, round tables and activities to reflect on these communication practices, share experiences and recommendations. The full workshop programme will be provided following registration.

How to register

The 2-day workshop is free and includes lunch, coffee breaks, a drinks reception and a certificate of attendance. Registration is required. Places are limited so please register here http://goo.gl/forms/YEyCLvePki  by 10th June

Heriot-Watt is located on the outskirts of Edinburgh city centre and is easily accessible by bus and train.  Further travel information as well as the full workshop programme will be provided following registration.

Contact

Dr Katerina Strani, Assistant Professor, Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies, Heriot-Watt University: A.Strani@hw.ac.uk

Social Media

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Project-Radar-Just2013fracag6271-370112223154383/?ref=hl

Twitter: https://twitter.com/RadarProject         @RADARproject    #RADARproject

radar_small_logo

 

Sign Language Interpreting on Chinese television: Some progress and much to expect

by Xiao Zhao

Xiao post

From November 15th, 2014, Qixia television station in Nanjing, Jiangsu province started to provide sign language interpreting in the weekly news programme Xiao Rui Shuo Xin Wen (Xiao Rui (name of the hearing news presenter) Presents the News). The programme received immediate applause from the deaf community all over the country and the academia. There are a few reasons for this.

To start with, the interpreter, Ms Dai Manli (name in Chinese order), is Deaf. Although in the past, there were deaf interpreters on television occasionally, this is the first time that the interpreter was encouraged officially to use natural Chinese Sign Language with clear facial expressions as opposed to the past where interpreters were required to wear a smile all the time and use signed Chinese, which is an imposed sign system based on written Chinese syntax with a lot of signs created on the basis of Chinese characters, very unpopular amongst the deaf Chinese community.

Moreover, this particular programme, unlike many other programmes with SLI, takes into consideration the feedback from the local deaf community. For example, when first broadcast, the size of the interpreter screen was as small as it was in the past, which was not easy to watch for deaf audience. After taking into consideration the feedback, the TV station enlarged the interpreter frame to its current size in the second week. Indeed, the current size is far from ideal if compared with that of the SLI frame in BBC news, but it is still regarded as a positive sign by the audience.

Last but not the least, in order to reach a wider audience in China, Qixia TV station edits a special version of the programme and publishes it on its Wechat account (similar to Facebook) and on mainstream video websites. As a result, deaf people in other cities in China can easily access it on the web.

Almost at the same time, Suzhou TV station, also in Jiangsu province, invited two deaf people to work as interpreters to try out their SL interpreted news programme. These two programmes are especially valuable in the context of nationwide downplay of natural CSL in special education schools and TV stations. We hope that more TV stations and, more importantly, more government leaders will follow the lead and provide quality service to deaf Chinese citizens soon.

Why Language Learning Will Not Reduce Interpreting Costs

This morning, I read that Leeds council want to slash interpreting costs by using children to interpret. Aside from the huge problems with this proposal and the lack of contextualisation of the figures involved (£127,000 in six months might be small compared to other costs like council branding, consultant hire, dog mess cleanup or even website design), what stood out most were the comments.

In general, the logic went like this

If people would learn English, we wouldn’t need to supply interpreting.

It sounds so convincing. We need to provide interpreting because people don’t speak English (oh and because it is a European law) so if people did speak English, we wouldn’t need interpreting. Problem solved.

Such a pity that won’t work, at least not for a long time. The truth is that “speaking a language” can mean thousands of different things. At the moment, I can claim I “speak” German – within strict limits, but I can speak it. I have spent two years learning it and can have a conversation and even write a letter or an email but you bet I would need an interpreter for the doctor’s office or a court.

I also “speak” French. In fact, I have been “speaking French” since I was 8. I have interpreted at high-level conferences and can read and understand everything from contracts to research papers. I have a degree in the language and an MSc in French-English Conference Interpreting and Translation. In fact, you might even want to call me nearly bilingual.

Still, drop me in a court and you bet I would want an interpreter. My legal French is good but not good enough to risk my freedom or someone else’s freedom for. The stakes would be just too high. I have not studied and used enough legal French to be completely aware of what the lawyers were attempting to get at with their questions.

In other words, language ability is not a single skill, good for all areas of life. It is perfectly normal, for someone to have excellent conversational skills in a language and yet struggle to transact business or talk to someone about their government benefits. Even after years in a country, it is very likely that even people who have “learned the language” might need help in certain key places, coincidentally, the same places where interpreting is needed the most now.

Learning a language to any level takes time and during this time, interpreting is required. It is a massive oversimplification to think that language classes will mean interpreting is not necessary.

All this has assumed that we are dealing with new arrivals to a country. What about Deaf people? Their need for interpreting will be ongoing.

So what do we do to save money? Simple: get a good system, don’t waste time and pay professional interpreters a professional rate. Getting things right first time will always cost less than having to clear up after a mess.

Author: Jonathan Downie

Vow of Silence: Day 4

Having committed to a week of silence to demonstrate solidarity with the UK’s Deaf sign language users, Professor Graham Turner has made it to Thursday without a squeak. Will everyone else’s luck run out before the weekend?

Imagine you’re completely blind. Can you do that? It’s not too difficult: you start by closing your eyes…

Now imagine you’re stone deaf. Not just a wee bit fuzzy round the edges, like your granddad or when you come out of a loud gig. Deaf as a post.

You can’t, can you? We don’t have ear-lids. You can’t switch your hearing off, no matter how hard you try.

This is at the root of the hearing world’s inability to comprehend what Deaf people are on about. Three key things follow from being Deaf.

One, everything the hearing world takes for granted about receive incoming information from the world through hearing, doesn’t apply. I’m on a train. The tannoy says the café closes in five minutes. If I’m Deaf, it could be a long, stomach-rumbling journey to Edinburgh.

Two, fortunately, the eye is a fantastic device. Persuasive evidence shows that Deaf people’s eyes are sharper and wired more responsively to their brains than hearing people’s. The way Deaf people do ‘being alive’ is re-jigged from top to bottom to exploit their different biological make-up.

Notice: not ‘deficient’ – just DIFFERENT.

Three, the kind of language that perfectly suits the bodies of Deaf people is signed language. British Sign Language has evolved naturally over centuries to match Deaf capabilities. Just as spoken languages work for the hearing, signing is perfectly designed to exploit the visual nature of Deaf people.

My ‘vow of silence’ hasn’t turned me into a Deaf person. If I had a heart attack right now, I can confidently predict that I wouldn’t wait for an interpreter to show up before communicating with the paramedics. I’d speak. (And I can’t NOT know that the café has now closed. Fear not: I brought my own biscuits.)

But as I can sign, and I’ve taken the time to learn from Deaf people what their experiences are like, I can get that much closer than most to seeing the world from a Deaf perspective. Our languages powerfully influence the way we think. Language both shapes and reflects our identities. I’m not Deaf, but – bearing in mind that it’s taken me over 25 years to develop my understanding – I do begin to ‘get’ what it means to be Deaf.

What about that heart attack scenario I just envisaged, though? The hearing world has often treated Deaf people as being in need of medical treatment. The urge to ‘fix’ those different ears runs deep… Deaf people say – SHOUT – “Leave us alone! We’re perfectly OK! We don’t need to be cured!”

But when a Deaf person suffers a heart attack, the real nightmares begin. The British Deaf Association’s discussion paper, launched yesterday, reports again  on the life-threatening barriers BSL users face when they actually do need healthcare.

However, it being the 21st century, new ways are being found to bridge this communication gap with Deaf people. In Scotland, NHS24 has piloted the use of video technology to bring ‘remote interpreters’ into the frame. It can work, but of course it depends upon a supply of competent interpreters.

They’ve thought of that, too.

In a UK ‘first’, NHS24 is seconding a group of its staff to Heriot-Watt University’s BSL interpreting degree. That’s a commendable commitment on the part of the service. Investing in four years’ full-time training per student underscores a really serious response to the problem.

And it shows that they know it’s THEIR responsibility to make healthcare properly accessible to BSL users.

That perfectly illustrates what we need to see across the board. Public services – health, education, social services, the legal system – facing their lawful obligation to ENSURE their own accessibility.

Not just by hoping for the best, but by nurturing skilled professional interpreters. And, when it makes sense to use limited resources in this way, to provide frontline practitioners who can sign, fluently and directly, with Deaf citizens.

It’s not a pipedream. It’s a perfectly achievable goal, as other countries have already shown. It just means paying attention to informed advice, especially from the BDA, which represents BSL users nationwide. And then, when you say you will treat Deaf people fairly, it means putting your money where your mouth is.

Now that’s what I call using your imagination.

Author: Graham Turner

Vow of Silence: Day 3

In solidarity with British Sign Language users in the UK, Professor Graham Turner is subject to a self-imposed vow of silence. Can he remain speechless and last for an entire week in BSL? What will he learn from the experience?

Living in Edinburgh, I can barely step out of my front door before someone’s playing the bagpipes at me.

As a matter of fact, I love it. What other country is associated with such a distinctive, pervasive symbol of identity? Ever been to Edinburgh’s Military Tattoo? Once in your life, you should. I may not be a Scot, but up on the battlements, silhouetted against the stars, the piper sends those skirling notes up to the heavens…

Not much use if you’re Deaf, of course.

So is a cultural heritage something you only get if you’re hearing, then?

Do me a favour. Not a bit of it.

The pipes may be great – but YOU HAVEN’T LIVED until you’ve experienced signed art. Had your heart squeezed by signed stories. Washed your eyeballs in tears of laughter at signed comedy. Seen the past re-kindled and the future set ablaze in signed drama.

Oh sorry, I keep forgetting. You ignored sign language until just lately because you thought it wasn’t really as good as speech, didn’t you? Trust me – and I say this as one who’s forgotten more than he cares to remember of the French, Greek, Latin and Swedish he studied in days of yore – you have been mightily misled.

British Sign Language was named – in Edinburgh: where else? – back in the mid-70s by the late, great and much-missed sign linguist, Dr Mary Brennan. The British Deaf Association backed the BSL Training Agency a decade later as it encouraged Deaf people to become professional BSL teachers and pass on their expert knowledge to others – and thousand upon thousand hearing people have opened their minds to BSL since. And it was the BDA again that published its doorstoppingly substantial and globally groundbreaking bilingual BSL-English dictionary in 1992.

So there’s no doubt whatsoever of the linguistic status of BSL. Not only is it a language: it’s a language that can blow your mind.

Unlike users of any spoken language ever discovered, signers can produce more than one word at a time – what did you think you had two hands for? And BSL isn’t just about what the hands do. It’s a full-body experience. Facial expression and bodily action are also exploited as integral features of the grammar. Signed languages are spectacularly creative, constantly playing with words and drenching every expression in a cascade of meaning and nuance.

The signed universe is an astonishing, achingly poetic place to live.

As it happens, Edinburgh is one of the most happening places in the BSL firmament right now. Part of that energy is coming from Heriot-Watt University, where a dozen sign language specialists, from as far afield as the USA and China, passionate and fizzing with ideas, are assembling research evidence  and educating the next generation of UK and global interpreters.

But Edinburgh is also a place to enjoy the cultural depth of the Deaf community, and to experience the rich heritage embodied in BSL. Just last weekend, you could have been at the Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile at the latest Visual Virus show. Three Deaf exponents of the most vivid BSL, and not a sound to be heard all evening except for the cultural heartbeat of the Deaf nation – and that noise people make when they laugh their socks off.

In fact, Scotland stands on the verge of transforming the BSL landscape. With all-party support, Mark Griffin MSP  intends to put a BSL bill before the Scottish Parliament later this year. It will focus minds and energies on securing the future of this language community, and on safeguarding its linguistic human rights.

As yesterday’s BDA BSL Symposium in London clearly showed, the rest of the UK is paying close attention to progress at Holyrood. Deaf people, just like others, are entitled to enjoy our uniquely visual cultural heritage. Our children – including those born to hearing parents – are entitled to share that extraordinary linguistic inheritance.

And, if you only have eyes to see, you’re more than welcome to come in. Just enter through the doorway marked ‘BSL’ and find out for yourself. The future signs.

Author: Graham Turner

BSL Highlights

As the year draws to a close, here are 10 highlights from the work of the British Sign Language team at Heriot-Watt University.

We have grown significantly during 2013. New additions to the family include Professor Jemina Napier, plus Clare Canton, Yvonne Waddell and Stacey Webb. This means we now have six PhD students working on sign language topics, too. To put faces to names, see http://lifeinlincs.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/whos-who-in-bsl-at-heriot-watt-university/! And there’ll be more in the new year: we’ve just confirmed the appointment of BBC news interpreter and the ‘Hot Fingers’ fingerspelling challenge competition organiser, Rob Skinner, as a Research Associate from January 2014, and we expect more new faces to follow.

Our fabulous first ever group of full-time BSL students completed year one of their programme! “The course has blown my expectations out of the water!… We have bonded very closely over the first year and it is an amazingly supportive and tight group”, said Jude Caldwell in the print version of this article.

Gary Quinn’s work on Science Signs has been recognised and praised over and over again. It featured in the New York Times last December, and the Times Higher Education magazine this year. Gary is in such demand that he’s even had to turn down the chance to work with Professor Brian Cox!

Dr Svenja Wurm has co-ordinated the recruitment of a new group of 24 students to our unique international MSc programme for advanced sign language interpreters, EUMASLI. Following the successful graduation of 100% of EUMASLI#1 students, the EUMASLI#2 group is 50% larger than previously, includes 6 Deaf students, and features participants from three continents (Europe, North America, Africa).

In August, we made our first appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, as part of the first ever ‘Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas’! The deliberately provocative topic – ‘Send the Deaf to Orkney’ – featured a guest appearance from SignVideo’s Jeff McWhinney, generated the largest audience of the whole Festival for the Cabaret organisers, and is summarised here by Graham Turner.

We continued to offer our Open Lecture series, EdSigns, venturing successfully into live video streaming for the first time with the inaugural EdSign appearance of Jemina Napier. The 2013 highlight was the full house welcome for Colin Allen, President of the World Federation of the Deaf http://wfdeaf.org/, exhorting one and all to promote sign languages through international implementation of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml. The EdSign programme for Spring 2014 is the strongest ever – feel free to come and join us: all are welcome!

We submitted successful proposals for new projects, two of which commence early in 2014. The Directorate General for Justice of the European Commission approved a pilot project called INSIGN to a consortium including ourselves, led by the European Union of the Deaf, to investigate improving communication between Deaf people and the EU institutions. And JUSTISIGNS  has also received funding from the Directorate General for Education & Culture to improve Deaf access to justice across Europe.

As always, we continued to disseminate our work through publications (including Jemina Napier’s ‘Research Methods in Interpreting’  and many others) and presentations around the world, such as Gary Quinn’s well-received paper at the first Sign Language Teachers conference in Prague.

We dedicated a significant amount of our time to taking the message about BSL and interpreting into the world of policy and politics. For example, in September, our input helped the Liberal Democrats to pass a motion calling for enhanced recognition of BSL.  We met with members of the Scottish, UK and European parliaments, and worked closely with bodies such as the British Deaf Association, Scottish Council on Deafness and the Scottish Government’s Equality Unit throughout the year.

Finally, we played our part in driving forward perhaps the biggest BSL development in Scotland: the adoption of a BSL Bill at the Scottish Parliament in 2014. In particular, we’re proud to say that many of our first-year students made well-received responses to the formal public consultation on the Bill, with Lisa Li in particular being prominently quoted in the summary report.

What have we done this year to make us feel proud? All of the above.

Author: Graham Turner

Orkney Can Wait

The first time I met a Deaf person was in 2006 as a PhD student. I was asked to help out with BSL exams in Heriot-Watt, to make sure examiners were there
and to look after the candidates. The Deaf examiner made me think how inspiring
it was for someone to overcome a disability and communicate confidently with
hearing people like me, who cannot fingerspell to save my
life.

I was, of course, wrong.

 Not about the examiner, who was indeed wonderful, but about deafness being a disability. It is not. That’s the first thing I learned from attending “Send
the Deaf to Orkney!
”, a debate starring our very own Director of Research, Graham Turner, organised by Beltane during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

 Arriving at the venue, I saw colleagues Gary Quinn, Robyn Dean and many others waiting outside to see the show. They were signing all at the same time, laughing and looking very excited. I wanted to join in, but then again I didn’t want to spoil their fun by being the only person who couldn’t sign. Robyn could have interpreted, but I would still feel like I was intruding. I guess that’s how Deaf people must feel in hearing environments.

 We were given miniature Orkney flags to wave in lieu of clapping or cheering and, shortly after, comedienne Susan Morrison came on stage to introduce the debate. Susan’s introduction was interpreted into BSL by Jemina Napier. Now, you know Jemina is brilliant, not because she is a Professor who has published over 50 papers, written 6 books and holds a Chair in Intercultural Communication at Heriot-Watt, but because she can interpret Glaswegian jokes into BSL with no sweat, having just moved here from Sydney 12 months ago.

 To add to the wow factor, Jeff McWhinney came on stage. Hurricane Jeff – more like! A Deaf entrepreneur and leader in the UK Deaf community, Jeff started signing his way through his argument for sending Deaf people to Orkney in such a vivid and engaging way, I almost didn’t need to listen to the interpreter! Ok, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to figure out the sign for ‘tokenistic’. Deafness with a capital ‘D’ is a culture, a way of life with its own values and language. Deaf people are immensely proud of their language and heritage and it is precisely the protection of this language and heritage that was central to the idea of having a separate, defined space for the Deaf to live in. Their own homeland – a Deafland, away from the tyranny of the hearing world.

But why Orkney? Well, it is an island, and Heriot-Watt already has a campus there, so it would kind of suit us! A Deaf Orkney would at last offer a place where signing came first, and the life of the community could be organised in BSL. The future of the language – in its heritage, visual form, not mixed uncomfortably with English – would be assured.

Jeff was so convincing, I started waving my flag like a maniac.

Graham Turner came on stage and he started signing as well (I’m guessing to remove any communicative bias from the debate). In my naivety, I thought sign-language was all about using your hands, but I soon discovered that you have to use your whole body, the muscles of your face and your mouth. Graham and Jeff were ‘performing’ in the eyes of hearing people, so to speak, but for Deaf people this was just signing. Sign language is a performance in itself, requiring creativity and imagination, which makes it even more fascinating.

So Graham questioned Jeff’s approach by stating that BSL is now valued by hearing people, too. That’s why it’s been recorded as the second most popular adult evening class (after First Aid), and why a BSL GCSE qualification is under serious consideration. So why hide it away on Orkney? Keep Deaf people here, so that our culture is enriched by
theirs!

Ok, well, that was easy enough. I want the Deaf here.
Let’s vote.

Not so fast. The argument is not so simple and linear. Graham and Jeff went back on stage and took turns to make the case for each side again, but reversing their roles. Graham recognised that on Orkney, Deaf families could freely decide not to opt for cochlear implants for their children, without pressure from doctors. Hurricane Jeff protested – attitudes have changed, haven’t you noticed? This is the 21st century! Implants or no implants, you can choose to sign if you want to. And can you imagine such a close-knit Deaf community? Divorce rates in Orkney would skyrocket, as there would be no privacy and everyone would be involved in everyone else’s business!
Nightmare!

Hear hear! I say, let’s vote!

But there was more. The economic dimension of a Deaf homeland in Orkney is crucial. Think about education in BSL without the cost of interpreters, or mental health provision dramatically reduced because Deaf children would be brought up with no identity crisis. And think of the tourism: every Deaf person the world over will want to visit Orkney’s signing haven!

But wait, said Graham, raising his finger. Video interpreting is now possible and a BSL GCSE would ultimately mean more and cheaper BSL interpreters.

Still, the idea of Deaf people having a place to call their own seemed more attractive in the course of the debate. Maybe not Orkne
y (I’d pick a sunny island in the Mediterranean), but, as it was pointed out, the issues of control over one’s own life and the right to self-determination are equally important. An official Deaf constituency in the UK would mean Deaf parliamentarians contributing to
major decisions at the local level.

But do we need a designated Deafland for this to happen? The idea of a public sphere is in our heads anyway. It doesn’t really exist, it emerges with communication. And as long as Deaf people communicate to raise awareness about Deaf issues, their public sphere will be kept alive.

So I wouldn’t book a one-way ticket to Kirkwall just yet.

Author: Katerina Strani