Not so long ago, deaf children were punished in the UK for using sign language in the classroom. Recounting his experience in the 1960s, one deaf person told one of my colleagues many years later: “I had a lot of punishments for signing in classrooms… One morning at assembly, I was caught again, then ordered to stand at the front of the class. The headmistress announced that I looked like a monkey [and that she would] put me in a cage in the zoo so the people will laugh at a stupid boy in the cage.”
Thankfully, experiences like this are no longer as common. Sign languages have not only survived, but are now flourishing – so much so that many more people are getting the chance to learn them, which should be celebrated.
British Sign Language (BSL) is used by tens of thousands of people in the UK, including around 90,000 deaf signers. For some of them, such as children with deaf parents, it is the first language they acquire. In the US, more undergraduate and graduate students have enrolled on courses in American Sign Language (ASL) than German each year since 2013.
Currently, the UK Department for Education has a draft BSL curriculum for England on its desk for GCSE students (14 to 16-year-olds), which could come into effect later this year. This would make it a modern language option alongside French, German, Spanish and Chinese. Both Scotland and Wales have BSL curricula in the works too.
Elsewhere, sign languages are gaining both recognition as official languages and a place on the national curriculum. South Africa has hired 60 instructors to teach South African Sign Language as part of a state-run adult literacy programme, and Jamaican Sign Language was introduced into Jamaica’s national curriculum earlier this month.
That sign languages are thriving should be welcomed for many reasons, including the cognitive benefits that learning them brings. Several studies have found that hearing people who learn sign languages perform better in tasks requiring spatial transformation abilities – which you might use when taking down directions. Space is an integral part of the grammar of a sign language, with verbs, nouns and pronouns using the space in which they are located as part of their meaning. A series of experiments by Mary Lou Vercellotti at Ball State University in Indiana also found that adult ASL students have enhanced face-processing skills, which are essential to reading emotions.
Learning a sign language can be enlightening, too. In a year-long study of preschool children by Amy Brereton at Trinity Washington University in Washington DC, hearing children who were learning ASL attained a greater appreciation of cultural diversity, as determined via classroom observations and interviews.
Part of the beauty of learning languages – both spoken and sign – is that you don’t need to be fluent to experience the benefits. In a recent British Academy project I led with my colleague Li Wei at University College London, we highlighted how learning languages shapes the mental functions you use in a range of other fields, from your social awareness to your creativity and grasp of mathematics.
Sign languages today are rich with communities and culture. Up until the 1980s, many deaf people essentially had to exist in the 19th century: no telephones, no radio, no television. But in many countries, social clubs, networks and advocacy groups for deaf signers have given rise to a diverse range of vernaculars. With the internet and social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, content creators are now sharing these with the world, bringing greater awareness and respect – and increased interest in learning these languages.
Bencie Woll is a professor of deaf studies at University College London
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