Influences on sign language

Click here to watch this post in BSL

Following on from Jemina Napier’s post last week I am continuing the discussion along a similar theme. Today I’m going to talk about how sign language has changed. I’ll also be talking about what factors influence sign language use, and whether those influences come from outwith or within the Deaf community. I was raised using sign language and was educated in a school environment where sign language was used routinely among the deaf children.  After leaving school I started working among hearing people but with politics not really a feature of life for Deaf people at that time, it wasn’t until I began to work with Deaf organisations that I became aware of being labelled as having a “Deaf Identity”.

I had my own thoughts on what the phrase might mean and I allowed myself to be labelled even though I assumed that my understanding of the term was possibly different to others’.  It was probably the right thing to do at the time but, over the years since I moved into teaching, working with the full range of BSL learners from beginners to interpreters as well as those within the Deaf Community, I began to notice that the term “Deaf Identity” was being applied a great deal by Interpreters and Deaf people and it moved me to discuss this with Deaf people themselves.  At the time I was putting together an article for the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) journal (McDade, 2010) and had been working on a questionnaire that I could use as supporting material for the piece.  In response to questions about the term “Deaf Identity”, most of the respondents said they were simply repeating a term they had seen being used or had been told was an appropriate description of Deaf sign language users.  They acknowledged that, although they understood the signs used to produce the term, they hadn’t really considered what the phrase meant.

This was the point at which I began to ask questions about where terms such as these originate and whether they are creations from within the Deaf community or from external sources.  My instincts tell me that the term originates from outwith the community since the word “identity” is not really found in our culture but where it is actually from is a bit of a mystery.  It is possible that it comes from Deaf professionals who may well have had more understanding of the English term and who began to introduce it into the community although the origin is still unclear.

I have read a lot of books and articles about research into BSL and was interested to note that very few had been written (or produced in sign Language) by Deaf people who were native to BSL.  Although I’m talking here about the UK and therefore British Sign Language I would think this is the same for most sign language research across the world.  Most of the sign language research is produced by hearing people who have come from outside the community or by hearing people who have grown up using sign language at home with their deaf parents.  In essence then we have people from outside the community writing about our community and culture, which is an interesting thought.  Some of those producing research have begun to ensure they have a Deaf member of the community as a co-researcher but I would query whether this is a bona fide partnership, another example of tokenism or simply an attempt by the outsider to appear to be an accepted member of the Deaf community.  Whilst there are some researchers for whom this does not apply, there are others about whom these questions have validity.

Should we have more native BSL users who understand the community and the culture leading the field (see last week’s posting and following discussion)? Why are researchers not producing work using BSL rather than writing in English?  Of course, English is a dominant language and is therefore very influential.  The Deaf community may well feel it is so powerful an influence that they have to accept it.  An example of this influence is the use of the sign commonly used to mean “access”, a sign I have seen being used for many years now.  Both Deaf people (although mainly those in professional posts) and interpreters or CSWs use this sign but, when we stop to examine it in BSL, it is practically meaningless.  We need to stop and consider where the language influences are coming from, whether we are using language as it is used by and in the community or whether the Deaf community is accepting the effects of very powerful external influences.  Despite BSL being their own language they accept external influences and this raises very interesting questions we should be debating so hopefully this vlog will stimulate some discussion.

Author: Rita McDade