While an estimated 77,000 people in the UK are native speakers of British Sign Language, ability to sign amongst those who are not deaf or hard of hearing remains low.
While Sign Language interpretators are experiencing increased visibility at events such as music festivals, with artists Chance The Rapper and Loyle Carner both regularly involving Signers at their live performances, there is still more work to be done to make the steps toward total inclusivity for the deaf and hard of hearing. Elsa Amri went along to Sign Language Give It A Go to see if she could pick up a valuable and rewarding new skill…
Two weeks ago, I went to the Sign Language GIAG. Sign language is something I’ve thought about learning since starting my studies at Leeds 2 years ago; I just never pursued it because it was never a priority. Any language you choose to learn is a step towards broadening your perspective on life, and choosing to better understand a group of people who may share ideals and values different to your own. I chose to learn sign language because I wanted to develop some kind of bridge between myself and people with hearing difficulties that would allow for smoother and better facilitated interactions between us.
The GIAG itself was a great experience. We were introduced to the society, its current committee members and the different ways we could get involved this year. Such as by participating in the volunteering sessions they hold regularly at different locations, or by taking official sign language classes. From the start of the session, the vibe in the room was pleasant and I could tell that all the committee members were not just performing their roles for the sake of having more to say on their CV, rather they were genuinely passionate about teaching us sign language and getting us to integrate ourselves within the society.
“Any language you choose to learn is a step towards broadening your perspective on life, and choosing to better understand a group of people who may share ideals and values different to your own”
After the brief introduction of the society, we were then taught a few signs, such as the alphabet and how to say our name. It can be daunting to learn a new language, and sign language is no exception, particularly because it involves using gestures rather than oral communication. You need to rely on your hands, and for someone like myself who tends to fidget a lot and overuse hand gestures when speaking, it can be quite a task to learn how to control my own hand gestures when communicating. Especially because despite not needing to speak when communicating via sign language, we were taught that it’s common to still mouth the words as you sign. Therefore, it’s not always easy to break the link between what you’re mouthing and the hand gestures you naturally act out in response to what you’ve said.
That being said, it’s not particularly difficult to memorise the alphabet, especially because a lot of the gestures are fairly straightforward. For the vowels, each vowel corresponds to a particular finger: A for the thumb, E for the index finger, I for the middle finger, O for the ring finger and U for the pinkie. To say any of these vowels using sign language, you just need to point at the respective finger using your dominant hand. Easy! We also learned a few other simple gestures, such as how to say “I”, the numbers and how to tell someone how old you are.
I won’t go into too much detail on how to perform all the gestures we learned, but overall, it was a wholesome experience and I’ll definitely be returning to the society on a weekly basis to continue my sign language learning experience. If you’re someone with a lot of free time, I’d recommend checking out the Sign Language society and pick up a new skill this year.