Media misunderstandings and British Sign Language

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Sign languages appear to develop spontaneously wherever deaf people come together to form a community, just as spoken languages do. There is historical evidence that sign languages were in use amongst deaf people in the UK (and elsewhere in the world) long before schools for deaf children were established.”  

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At the start of the school term this year, Google Doodle featured a story about Thomas Braidwood, the man who established the first school for deaf children in the UK. The Edinburgh-based Braidwood Academy began in 1760. Most importantly, Braidwood is known to have used the ‘combined method’ in educating deaf children, using British Sign Language (BSL) as a language of instruction alongside English. Today, the majority of deaf children are educated in mainstream settings, but there are still over 20 specialised schools for deaf children, some of them continuing the tradition of using both BSL and English (Birmingham’s Longwill School is amongst them).

Google Doodle’s story provided an unexpected and very significant opportunity to raise awareness of Braidwood as an important figure in the history of deaf education in the UK, and the vital role of British Sign Language (BSL). As might be expected, the story by Google Doodle led to significant media coverage, with follow up stories published in major British newspapers, such as The Independent and The Telegraph. You will not find the original version of these stories online now, however, as they contained a number of factual errors and erroneous assumptions about BSL that led to an outcry from academics (including myself) and deaf activists on social media.

On the same day that these newspaper stories appeared, the British Deaf Association issued a statement. Journalists moved quickly to correct many of the most offensive mistakes in the online versions of these articles. The misinformation and the ensuing Twitter storm, however, revealed a great deal about the myths and misconceptions that surround the sign languages of deaf communities, including BSL.

The most egregious error in the press was the assumption by some in the media that Braidwood ‘invented’ BSL. We see this in the original title of the article in The Independent: ‘British Sign Language…How an ingenious system of hand gestures gave voice to millions’. It seemed to rest on the idea that deaf people are isolated and lonely individuals, without any agency, who were simply suffering in silence while apparently waiting for some magnanimous hearing individual to give them a ‘voice’. There is, in fact, no evidence that any single individual, hearing or deaf, invented any of the sign languages used in deaf communities around the world today.

Moreover, sign languages appear to develop spontaneously wherever deaf people come together to form a community, just as spoken languages do. There is historical evidence that sign languages were in use amongst deaf people in the UK (and elsewhere in the world) long before schools for deaf children were established. There are, for example, references to the use of sign language amongst deaf people in the writings of Plato. In the UK, references to signing deaf people begin to appear in writing from the 14th century onwards, when the first documented case of sign language interpreting appeared in court records (as University of Birmingham PhD student, Anne Leahy, has shown). John Bulwer’s 1648 book, Philocophus, describes a small number of signs in use by two deaf brothers, some of which are very similar to signs still used in BSL today. The deaf writer, Pierre Desloges, describes an active deaf community in Paris in the 18th century, before deaf education began.

Although we do not know much about how Thomas Braidwood came to learn BSL, we do know that Abbé de l’Epée, who established the first school for deaf children in France in the late 18th century, learned French Sign Language from two deaf sisters in Paris. This very approach was recommended by John Wallis in the late 17th century, who suggested that educators learn deaf people’s sign languages in order to teach them to read and write.

How deaf communities create their own sign languages has been documented by linguists studying the emergence of Nicaraguan Sign Language since the middle of the twentieth century. In 1979, a new socialist government in Nicaragua opened the first school for deaf children. Although the language of instruction used by the hearing teachers in the new school was Spanish, the deaf children who were brought together for the first time at the school began to share in the school playground the signs that they had developed at home with their families. These pooled linguistic resources soon led to the emergence of a new sign language. Later, this new sign language was adopted by the teachers and became the language of instruction in the school. In the case of Thomas Braidwood, his real achievement was not, in fact, the ‘invention’ of BSL, but the introduction of the language of the British deaf community into the classroom from the very start.

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