We would like to express our serious concerns regarding the exponential growth in online content created by hearing people using “sign supported communication systems” or “language programmes” that incorporate signs, such as Signalong, Makaton and Baby Signs. These posts, such as the one below, have caused anger and distress among the Deaf signing community and confusion among the hearing population.
The mission of the British Deaf Association (BDA) is to protect, preserve and promote British Sign Language (BSL), the language of the Deaf community in the United Kingdom. It is estimated that 151,000 people use BSL in the UK, of which around 87,000 are Deaf.
British Sign Language is a language in its own right, distinct from English. BSL is a signed, visual-gestural language that uses handshapes and movements, facial expressions, mouth patterns and movement of the body to convey meaning. It is a natural language that has developed naturally among sign language users in the UK over many centuries. Sign language is not universal; there are hundreds of different signed languages around the world, just as there are hundreds of spoken languages.
Our organisation was set up in 1890 in response to an international congress held in Milan, Italy, ten years earlier. The conference, which was attended mainly by hearing teachers of Deaf children, passed a resolution banning the use of sign languages in schools throughout the world. Enthused delegates returned home to make Deaf teachers redundant and totally eradicate the use of sign language in educational settings.
What followed was more than a century of systemic oppression, institutional discrimination, language deprivation, and ignorance about sign languages and their essential role in the lives of Deaf people. Generations have since grown up with access to neither the hearing world through spoken language, nor the Deaf world through sign language, which has been systematically denied to them by educators, audiologists, policymakers, and other professionals with little understanding of – or interest in – Deaf people’s unique linguistic and cultural needs.
The rise in digital technology, such as smartphones, social media, and video calling apps, has represented an enormous breakthrough for Deaf people in both reducing their isolation and empowering them to communicate in their preferred language: British Sign Language.
However, it has been accompanied by a deeply worrying trend: the widespread misrepresentation and cultural appropriation of sign language by hearing people – often with poor signing skills – who “teach” sign language to others online, or worse – create entirely new “sign language systems” based on English grammar which borrow, adapt, or simplify signs from BSL - or make completely new signs up with no input from BSL users.
Let us be clear: these “sign systems” make absolutely no sense to Deaf people.
Well-meaning hearing people, schools and nurseries using Makaton, Signalong and so-called “Baby Signs” with their children give the misleading impression that they are teaching these children something useful, a skill for life. While we accept that these can be helpful for those with learning or communication difficulties, they should not be considered as equal to appropriate replacements for BSL. It would make far more sense to teach children – both hearing and Deaf – BSL, a natural, rich, visual language that will enable them to communicate with the Deaf community for the rest of their lives.
This year, 132 years after the Milan Congress, the BDA successfully led the campaign to persuade the UK Government to recognise British Sign Language in law as a language of Great Britain. The BSL Act, which will come into force on 28 June 2022, will mark a watershed in the history of the Deaf community in the UK.
Parliament has at long last acknowledged that our language, British Sign Language, is both a language in its own right, and an indigenous language of Great Britain of equal value to English, Welsh, Scots, Ulster Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Cornish. That it has taken this long to achieve is symbolic of the continued misunderstanding and oppression of our beloved, beautiful, visual language among the hearing majority.
Enough. We are no longer willing to sit back and allow hearing people to appropriate, misrepresent or otherwise abuse our language. Makaton, Signalong and “Baby Signs” are not sign language. They are not languages at all. While we warmly welcome the record number of people in the UK taking an interest in sign language for the first time, we are concerned at the widespread confusion among the British public about BSL and these other - artificial - “sign systems” created without the input of Deaf people.
We strongly encourage the British public to take time to educate themselves. Learn BSL from a qualified, fluent, native Deaf teacher in a classroom. Look for your local Deaf club, pub or Facebook group. Seek out Deaf people and make friends with them. Don’t expect to learn BSL from watching a few videos on YouTube made by a hearing person who does not themselves master our rich, complex, visual language. It will take time and effort, but we promise it will be worth it.
Deaf people are incredible. We can do anything hearing people can do, except hear. But what we can do, is sign.
Read more about what the BDA stands for: bda.org.uk/history/what-we-stand-for
Read more about the history of the BDA: bda.org.uk/history
Find BSL courses near you here: www.signature.org.uk and here https://ibsl.org.uk/centres
Find a Deaf teacher near you here: https://abslta.co.uk