Christmas; what sounds do you associate with this season of goodwill? Carol singers, chestnuts roasting on an open fire (both for real and the song) and shouts of excitement from children, then of course Slade’s 1983 hit ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’? Whatever noise, loud or soft, assails your ears, it all adds to the ‘feel good’ factor that is generated to make you feel part of a very important event; it puts you in the spirit of things.
But imagine if you couldn’t hear any of that, not the loudest bang of the biggest Christmas cracker or the gently muffled hush of the snowflakes falling to create a winter wonderland that would be met with whoops of delight from everyone.
What if you were born or subsequently became totally deaf? You can see the excitement in the faces of others, watch the partygoers dance around the room and see the choristers’ mouths changing shape as they sing the well known carols at the top of their voices. But in your world, that great spectacle of colour and animation is like a silent movie.
Being a more or less fully functioning human being, I take our five senses for granted and enjoy every aspect without a second thought, but with at least 35,000 deaf children and 840 deaf babies being born every year in the UK alone, it gives you some idea that this kind of disability is by no means in the minority.
There are two classifications of deafness: pre-lingual when deafness occurs from birth or early childhood and acquired or adventitious when a person becomes deaf later in life and has had the advantage of knowing spoken or written language and is therefore generally more able to deal with lip reading (the McGurk effect) and text.
But for those who have pre-lingual or profound deafness, any form of social interaction becomes far more challenging and it is not uncommon for sufferers to become isolated from the rest of the society.
One of the methods of communicating is sign language and to a lesser extent lip reading.
It may surprise you to know that a form of sign language in the British deaf community has been in existence since at least 1570 although up until the 1940’s, signing was often taught amongst deaf communities themselves as it was generally prohibited in school where deaf children were forced to use other forms of communication such as lip reading. It was only from the 1970’s that schools became more tolerant.
In the UK sign language is known as British Sign Language (BSL) and in 2003 the Government formally recognised it as a minority language, giving it the same status as Welsh and Gaelic.
BSL, like any language, has evolved over time with new words being created and different dialects developing from region to region. But given the huge number of deaf people in the UK, I was surprised to read there are around just 125,000 adults and 20,000 children who use sign language as their main language.
Is that due to lack of facilities or is there still an underlying stigma attached to the condition and just how easy is it to learn sign language?
Signing is a highly ‘visual’ language where the hands, face, body and head are used to create different shapes that represent letters or words.
For instance the word ‘taxi’ is represented by making your raised hand into a fist then clicking your thumb and second finger and Monday is shown by signing the letter ‘M’ twice.
However, whilst there are thousands of words used in sign language, there are some words that share the same sign e.g. slow and green, so it is important to combine signing with an element of lip reading i.e. you should mouth the word you are saying.
Additionally, the sentence structure of signing is different from conventional verbal communication e.g. ‘what is your name?’ becomes ‘name what you?’
But there is another element to this conundrum; by using a form of specialist language, whilst they are able to communicate with others who use the language, deaf people are usually less able to socialise to the same extent with those people who are not deaf and therefore do not understand sign language. This kind of concentrated networking can lead to a community that not only has its own language, but may also develop its own recognisable culture that may have the side effect of cutting them off from the rest of society.
So could the answer be to add sign language as an optional GCSE subject so that there is the potential for those people with good hearing to involve themselves with those who are deaf? There are already three examination systems accredited by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, but this is mostly aimed at those who are directly involved in the language such as sign teachers.
As our world moves ever closer to a multi cultural society, should we not be embracing every element that is on offer, including those people who speak a minority language?
Society’s acceptance of sign language and the way of life it engenders is still relatively fresh and new, but given the condition of deafness is never likely to be eliminated, perhaps we should all be making more of an effort to make sign language an addition to our own social networking skills.
A Guide to British Sign Language www.britishsignlanguage.com.
Action on Hearing Loss (the new name for RNID) www.actiononhearingloss.org.uk.