Tricia Thompson leads the British Sign Language Café sessions at The Garage, run in association with All-In Productions. She talks about how signing can open a whole new world to users and how anybody can join in the fun whatever their experience.
Can you tell me more about the group?
It was once a month, now we meet at the Locomotion Café every two weeks. It seems to flow better and people remember more what’s happened. We started last summer with two people but on average we now have 10-15. We’ve another Sign and Wine event on Friday, 5 July, 7.30pm-10pm, at The Garage. The Norfolk Summer Deaf Festival is coming up at The Forum 24-25 May, so we’ll have a stand there.
How can people get involved?
The sessions are free. We’ve had people literally sat in the café, looking at what we’re doing and say “wow, can we join in?” Some people have joined through word of mouth. You can be at base level, right the way through to Level 6.
How did you start signing?
I have two generations of deaf in my family, I’ve a deaf brother and a deaf daughter. We didn’t sign in the family. My brother started to learn to sign when he was 19, when he went to a deaf club in Bristol with our mum; but it wasn’t common. You’d just go into a mainstream school with a set of hearing aids, signing wasn’t really a factor. Now – with a lot of fighting and campaigning – signing’s becoming more important.
I learned when I found out my daughter was deaf. I thought “I’ve seen my brother learn it and I didn’t” so it was time to do that myself. We learned together from the basics, “table”, “more”, “milk”, “biscuit”, “chocolate”, all our favourite things and we went into full conversational signing. My son is hearing and signs too. We all sign in our family – we’re bi-lingual. It’s made a massive difference to our lives.
What brings people to the group, is it because they or somebody they know is functionally diverse or is it the chance to learn a new skill?
It’s lot of those things. We have people with a variety of different levels of deaf-ability come to the sessions. We’ve a family that’s changing from Paget Gorman sign language to BSL because it’s used much more in the wider world. BSL is an officially recognised language and the government has said it’s bringing out a GCSE for schools so children can learn to sign rather than French or German.
What are the benefits of people coming along and learning BSL?
There’s lots. It’s a lovely language and people get a lot of fun out of learning it. People who come along to the sessions can now use sign in their everyday life, even finger spelling has a massive impact. It’s made their life easier.
It reduces isolation and also boosts confidence. We’ve a student who attends dance classes here. She’s learning a formal course, practising signing within the group, practising with her mother – they’re signing on the bus, she did a dance audition where she was signing to her mum in the audience and she was signing back, she’s helped run the BSL Café sessions.
We support all deaf sign language teachers who put people through a formal course of Level 1 or above. You have to practise and there are lots of fantastic places where you can do that.
The BSL Café is also about increasing their experiential learning - if you were living in France, hearing and using the language you start to really learn it. We’re about empowering people.
Signing’s an incredible tool for people who are trying to lip-read and don’t have the opportunity to communicate. You need signing to make the words real and easy to access.
You can’t lip-read all words… people say there’s about 45% of the dictionary you can actually, physically lip-read. For instance, if I was a vicar and said “I’m going to marry you”, I could also be saying “I’m going to bury you”. The words "marry" and "bury" have exactly the same lip pattern. If you sign “marry” you can see it and it’s instant.
You can’t communicate in a group if you’re all deaf without sign. There’s so much background noise in environments, like here. There are kids playing, cluttering, movement, the music, the coffee machine… for us to be able to communicate in a relaxed way with all that is huge. If you’re deaf with all hearing people who just chat and chat… hearing aids aren’t like glasses, where you put them on and you get clear vision. They amplify pretty much everything that’s happening around you. But your brain can’t just tune in to what a hearing aid or cochlear implant are amplifying, especially if there are lots of voices. It depends which way which hearing aid or implant is working. It’s really tricky.
It’s fascinating. There’s lots of evidence that says signing improves speech. If you sign something first like cup, as soon as you sign it and say the word it links with the word and promotes the child using their voice. There’s a lot of debate saying if they sign they’ll never use their voice. Actually, there’s lot of evidence to say it’ll improve their speech and language therapy.
You were just awarded your Level 6 NVQ Certificate in British Sign Language?
It’s the the highest level you can reach. I went to a company called Remark in London, who were fantastic. It took a year-and-a-half to do. It was lots of hard work, lots of evidence gathering, filming and travelling. The language acquisition is quite complex. I studied phenology, linguistics, grammar, dynamics, culture and the history of the language. I’m over the moon.
You have to be completely fluent. I work with All-In Productions and The Garage to make the My First series of shows accessible to BSL users. Level 6 is really a pathway to interpreter. You still have to do a further lot of training to get your badge but I’d like to see myself doing that.
The British Sign Language Café meets at the Locomotion Café at The Garage every two weeks from 10am-11am. You can practice your conversational signing in a relaxed, informal setting. Everybody’s welcome, regardless of previous experience. Click here for more details.