February 28

Serious business

It is evident that the BSL group has become more confident over the weeks. We sit in an almost silent room, hands moving, eyes watching attentively. Conversations are beginning to build, handshapes are clearer and there is no doubt that vocabularies have expanded. That not to say we don’t all have our moments of frustration over a forgotten sign or one that is as yet unknown.

At one point during today’s session we played a guessing game. We had learnt a range of country names last week and this was a fun way to remember. Our tutor signed or fingerspelt a food or national dish and we had to guess both the food and the relevant country and then sign back the country name. It was delightful in its innocence and simplicity. As I looked around the room everyone appeared completely entranced, we had been set a challenge and we were not going to found wanting!

Much laughter and scratching of heads later and all the countries were covered. I think we made a pretty good showing although that’s not say our recollection was perfect. I have been pondering since what it was that worked so well for me, and a number of things have come to mind.

  • There were no harmful consequences to getting it wrong and as such there was nothing to be lost by giving it a go
  • It was undoubtedly helping us to both practice signing and remember some specific signs
  • It was fun – more of a quiz than a test

We were enjoying ourselves and this was helping us learn, now it is true that I still may not remember all the signs, but I will certainly recall this as an activity that helped me relax and enjoy the process of learning. There was also something in it that felt a bit irreverent, as adults learning something new it was perhaps not seemly to be enjoying ourselves.

This sentiment is supported by others, like Armstrong, who have looked at fun and adult learning:

There is a lack of literature on the use of humour in adult learning or the process of making adult learning fun. Most certainly, learning and fun are assumed to go together as far as young children are concerned. But later education becomes a serious business. And, if anything, learning has become more serious over the past decade or so. In the UK, the mainstreaming of university adult education has reduced the amount of learning for its own sake, for enjoyment. A major concern within adult education is that students should not be attending classes to be entertained.

Yet many years ago the power of collective laughter was recognised as something valuable:

When a class and its teacher all laugh together … they become a unit … enjoying the shared experience. If that community can be prolonged or re-established, and applied to the job of thinking, the teacher will have succeeded. (Highet, 1951: 56-57)






February 1


One of the revelations in doing the BSL course has been the range of resources I have found on the web, not that it should be a surprise, just that I have never had cause to seek them out before.

I can highly recommend the Bristol Centre for Deaf Studies mobile app. When I was learning Spanish the house became bejewelled with post-its with the Spanish translation for the relevant object on them. This has been a little harder to do with sign language. With the mobile app I can look things up as they come to me and I can test myself to see what I have remembered.

This is sometimes a challenge when the various resources use a slightly different sign and they then vary again from what we are taught in class. Like regional variations and different accents you just have to be mindful of the alternative versions.

In some ways it is nice to be a naïve learner again, to come across surprises, to be taken aback by assumptions so clearly made out of awareness and to delight in the baby steps of progress. It takes a great deal of effort and attentiveness but it is very rewarding when single words become sentences and sentences become conversations


January 31

Becoming familiar

It was with great enthusiasm our merry band assembled this morning for the final module of our BSL course, most of last week’s anxiety has now gone although we still don’t know the outcome of our 102 assessment.

This week we ran over some familiar territory. I always seem to be lulled into a false sense of security at the beginning of the session, ‘ah yes I remember those signs, it’s all coming back.’ Then new bits of vocabulary slowly pile in and my brain turns to noodles. I think I am just about keeping up and it is great to see how everyone’s confidence has flourished.  Any fear of group humiliation has pretty much disappeared. I have certainly found that I don’t learn if I’m not prepared to just give it a go.

It is a curious position to be in, going from a familiar and extensive vocabulary to that of a child. The frustration of knowing what you want to say yet not having the tools to do it in anything more than the most basic form.

I also found more interesting BSL research this week that suggests people who have learnt sign language have a tendency to use more gestures after they have finished their studies. I certainly find the odd sign sneaks in now but I had assumed that was because I am consciously trying to practice. I have a certain childlike joy when I come across a word in conversation and am able to think I know the sign for that! It seems I am not unusual in this. The researchers suggest there are three possible reasons for this:

  1. Students may have become accustomed to moving their hands when communicating, and this carries over into monolingual speech environments
  2. Learners of ASL (it was an American study) become accustomed to signing and speaking at the same time and this behaviour, which is true of many hearing people who sign, not just learners, simply carries over into speech
  3. The students’ repertoire of conventional gestures (akin to crossing your fingers for “good luck”) may simply have been increased by bringing in new gestures
January 24


After a slightly stressful morning of taking our BSL 102 assessment, this really me made me smile. It felt like a celebratory video was in order!


January 23

A bit of brain work

As some people will know I am a bit of a geek when it comes to wanting to research things I am involved in. I am fascinated with the how and the why as well as the what. BSL has been no exception and I have been reading some research papers on the neuro/science of learning a second language, and sign language in particular. In some ways it has been reassuring to understand the process of acquisition a little more and appreciate that I am struggling with the same  language attainment issues others have faced.

It would appear that for a while researchers thought that the learning and brain activation of an audio-visual language (spoken English) would be different to that of a visual gestural language (BSL). In case you are not already aware BSL is a visual gestural language that consists of three main parts:

  • Fingerspelling – used to spell words letter by letter
  • Word level sign vocabulary – the main communication form
  • Non manual features – facial expression and tongue, mouth and body position

The assumption had been that in BSL because of the perceived emphasis on the visual it would be processed differently by the brain. However, researchers found that the two areas of the brain associated with audio-visual language

  • Broca’s area of the brain, which is thought to be related to speech production and
  • Wernicke’s area, associated with comprehending speech;

are utilised in a similar way regardless. There is now some evidence that Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas are tied to language irrespective of how it is produced.

It suggests the brain is organised for language not for speech. Prof Karen Emmorey


It may sound silly but this has helped me to know that while learning BSL feels like a very different language sometimes, I do have the tools I need to learn it. It would seem that successfully learning BSL goes back to an earlier more fundamental post – practice, practice, practice…!!!



January 23

Body language

Aside from the occasional confusions, frustrations, and anxieties over assessment I am really enjoying learning BSL. One of the most enjoyable aspects has been learning it with other members of the Graeae community. It is not often that an opportunity arises that allows board members, staff members and freelancers to come together on something that is not purely focused on the business of the company, although access clearly goes to the core of what we do.

While a few people did have some background knowledge we have effectively been learning something completely new together and I have found that to be a great leveller. We are all in it together and mutual support is an essential part of making the chemistry work. It is not uncommon to see

What’s the sign for…?


Or to share resources we have found useful.

This is all supported by a trainer who seems to have infinite patience and an uncanny ability to read our faces and know whether something has landed or not. I am quite familiar with learning environments, but it has been a very long time since I have had to learn anything by rote. I do feel that both literally and metaphorically I am surfacing and flexing muscles that haven’t been used from some time if ever, and this had made it all the more fascinating.

The last time I can remember having to focus so much on my body, it’s placing, shapes and expressions was when I learnt trampolining, not a comparison I had expected to make at the beginning and it is not intended to be a trivial comment. If anything it highlights for me that this is a truly embodied learning experience.



January 20


A complicated expressive gesture cannot be broken

down into a lesson plan. It can only be learned

through practice and repetition, with the goal of

reaching a point when it happens instinctively.

from McNiff, S (1998) Trust the Process: An artist’s guide to letting go

January 17

A new way to learn

For the last eight weeks I have been learning the basics of British Sign Language (BSL). Looking back I am not entirely sure I knew what I was getting myself into at the time, in fact between you, me and the laptop, had I known at the time I might not have signed up! That said, as with a lot of my best learning experiences, sometimes it is a good thing just to do it and see what happens.

You can imagine that at Graeae (yes, of Paralympic Opening Ceremony fame) it is important we all understand the importance of what we have come to call the aesthetics of disability. I refer to aesthetics in its true meaning, of knowing through the senses, and what it might mean when those senses are configured differently to others. As part of the etiquette of our training we are asked not to verbalise and this means that much of the training is conducted in near silence. I have never experienced anything like this before and it has been extraordinary. Don’t worry I’m not going to go on and say it has given me new insights into how it must be to be Deaf or hard of hearing for that would plainly be a nonsense.

What I mean is that it has taught me something about me, what I rely on, how I learn, and how important it is to come out of my comfort zone from time to time.