Understanding Deaf* history and the impact of Parliamentary decisions on those with profound hearing loss is key to appreciating the barriers faced by sign language users in the modern world.
Deaf people have fought for equality for over 100 years and continue to fight, despite recent events that will increase access to services (British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015).
The internet has helped increase interest in British Sign Language (BSL) by both members of the public and politicians. Hopefully, BSL’s popularity will translate into equality and improved access. (Deaf* refers to native sign language users who view themselves as members of a linguistic minority).
When two parties use different languages, interpreters are used to facilitate communication. Contrary to popular belief, communication is not a given. Interpreters relay all elements of language, including the linguistic and cultural nuances from both languages. When effective communication is achieved, it is a rewarding experience for all, including the interpreter.
Having worked with the Deaf Community for nearly 20 years, I have created a list of ‘helpful hints’ for those that want to make sure communication is effective when communicating with a deaf person who uses British Sign Language (BSL).
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
Where a lot of information needs to be given to others, it is in your interest to give resources to the interpreter beforehand, so they can prepare for the assignment. An interpreter is there to help you ensure your communication is effective. It helps if the interpreter has an idea of the subject matter, the topics you are intending to discuss, any jargon you need to use and the aim of the meeting/training session. Interpreters are not mind readers, it is helpful if they know what tools are at their disposal to perform an effective job.
Speak directly to the other party
Interpreters and regular users of interpreters, understand that communicating via a BSL interpreter can be confusing for you – you speak to one person yet hear the voice of another. Yes, it is true that the person you are addressing cannot hear your voice, but your body language and facial expressions convey valuable information too. Whenever you speak to someone, you usually address the person directly – the same applies to a deaf person who uses Sign Language. Deaf people, rely on visual clues so if you address the interpreter instead of the deaf person, communication becomes confusing.
This also means addressing questions directly to the deaf person e.g. “did you have any questions?” as opposed to “can you ask him/her if they have any questions?”
As with any conversation, your eye contact will be with the person you are communicating with – the same applies when you are communicating with a deaf person. However, please bear in mind that the deaf person may be using a combination of communication strategies to understand what you are saying. They may be lip reading (which is guess work, at best) as well as using the interpreter, so you will need to maintain a consistent approach to communication by following standard conversation behaviours.
Speak at your usual pace
BSL interpreters have trained for several years so know how to convey spoken language into BSL. If you pause…….before saying….….your next…..…. point, it……..disrupts……..the………flow….of ….communication.
This is pretty much a universal rule when communicating, whilst you may know what acronyms are, the person you are communicating with (or the interpreter) may not. If you must use jargon, it is a good idea to follow the same rules for writing acronyms i.e. using the full term and then give the abbreviation.
It is normal for an interpreter to occasionally ask parties to clarify something – a phrase you have used or to check that they have not misheard something. At times, this may seem inconvenient, but it is in your interests to use an interpreter as efficiently as possible so that communication is effective.
Jokes, idioms, metaphors
These rely on some level of cultural knowledge and cannot always be translated into other languages so consider whether the joke, metaphor or idiom is necessary for getting your message across.
Definite no, no’s
Never say to an interpreter “don’t interpret that”, an interpreter is present to facilitate communication. Professional conduct rules also require interpreters to communicate everything that is said. If you do not wish something to be communicated, don’t say it. (In reality, you will find that most interpreters have already interpreted what you said, anyway).
A sign language interpreter must use both visual and aural processing whilst interpreting so regular breaks are essential to maintain interpreting quality. Processing two languages simultaneously is like revving a car engine continuously – eventually the engine gets hot and wears out. The same applies to interpreters – the cerebral processing becomes impaired affecting the ability to interpret coherently. So if communication takes place over an extended period, then two interpreters are required so interpreting quality is maintained.
Interpreters are there to facilitate communication and are not a source of advice or information when interpreting. If you need the interpreter’s opinion, you need to ask before or after interpreting has taken place. A word of caution – it is not appropriate to ask about the deaf person. Any question that relates to the deaf person, should be addressed directly to the deaf person.
These tips aim to help you feel more confident when using BSL interpreters. Interpreters are there to help both parties access communication so if you can support the communication process by using the tips above, you will find communicating across language barriers a positive and rewarding experience.
Learning sign language is incredibly popular and we know that finding websites where you can learn for free, or practise what you have learned, are hard to find. So, we feel it is our duty to share our knowledge and help make the world a more inclusive place to be. To be honest, we’re surprised this list wasn’t created sooner, but better late than never!
BSL Signbank is a great resource for anyone learning sign language. You can practice fingerspelling and look up a wide variety of signs. There is also a link to the BSL Corpus Project (see below) which has numerous video clips of Deaf people using BSL.
BSL Corpus Project is a fantastic website for people already learning BSL. The site provides a wide selection of video clips showing ‘Deaf voices’ from across the UK. This website is great for improving your understanding of sign language.
Signworld is useful to both tutors and learners alike. Learners can try the first lesson for free and then subscribe for further lessons. This site is often recommended to learners who attend sign language courses.
Actual Signs has a great BSL dictionary. There are a variety of signs under each initial of the alphabet. There are also video clips for topics such as countries. This site is great for those who want to increase their range of vocabulary or for those that need to practice.
This is our favourite site because it’s a great resource for families who can learn sign language together. This is a great website for parents who might be unable to access sign language classes and who want to learn how to communicate with their child.
Signstation has an excellent resource titled ‘Learn BSL – The Company’ that explains how to be deaf aware at work. We recommend this resource to organisations that are considering improving the diversity of their workforce.
Mobilesign can be used to learn BSL on the move. The app is free and gives you access to thousands of signs. A great app if you are on a long journey and need to pass the time.
So there you have it – we could add many more websites to our list. However, these sites have been chosen for their accessible video content which is essential for learning a visual language.
Of course, nothing beats attending a class. Learning and using sign language are two very different skills – how else are you going to put your fantastic signing skills you learn online, into practice? Attending classes enables you to check that you can put all the elements of sign language together in a coherent fashion so you can actually communicate with someone who is deaf. Classes are also a great way to make new friends and start a potential new career path too.
We hope you enjoy visiting the free sign language sites that are on offer. Feel free to share with friends and family who might want to learn too and don’t forget to check out our sign language classes!