Sunday, 16 June 2013

Which system should Maria use for signing?

Happy Daddy's Day!
Maria is five years old and English is her first receptive language and Makaton was her first expressive language; but since she started special school this year then things have changed; English is now slowly taking over as Maria's primary expressive language. 

Maria's school report says she uses Makaton a lot to express herself, together with babbling and English words. At home she largely babbles but uses more English words when encouraged, however there isn't much signing at home. That's probably because we don't sign much to Maria whereas her teachers do.

All this indicates that Maria's speech is slowly developing and it looks like spoken English will become her dominant expressive mode; so far Maria's record for the longest sentence is five words. She's got some way to go before she relies solely on English; in the meantime she needs a way to make herself understood, thereby reducing her frustration. So, back to the original question, which I'll rephrase as: which system should Maria use for signing?

Given Maria already understands English then the possible candidates for an expressive language include British English (BEL) and any of the sign systems we saw in the previous post. Indeed the only excluded choice is British Sign Language (BSL), apparently because of BSL grammar. Ironically, BSL is used by mute people yet Maria, who is in effect hearing-mute, is not advised by the 'experts' to use it. This can only be because they believe she is incapable of handling two grammars: English and BSL.

What's the problem with learning two grammars? After all, there are cases of bi-lingual and tri-lingual children with Down Syndrome. Come to  think of it, Maria already understands English and some Tagalog - the official language of the Philippines. 

Common sense dictates that children with developmental delay have enough trouble learning one grammar, let alone two. Although I've never accepted this premise in the past, I would so like Maria to have an expressive language that I'm sorely tempted now.  Common-sense and science don't always mix however, there's evidence that children with Down Syndrome do have difficulty learning grammar, whereas nouns and verbs are much easier master. 

Now, you can interpret this difficulty of learning grammar in two ways: either reduce the number of grammars a child needs to learn or simplify the grammars. Reducing the number of grammars argues in favour of using Makaton and BEL since Makaton grammar is a subset of BEL grammar, meaning the child only learns one grammar. Simplifying the grammars argues in favour of BSL and Basic English since BSL grammar is simpler than Makaton (English) grammar and Basic English grammar is simpler than BEL grammar. Clearly the experts have opted for reducing the number of grammars. 

My personal preference would be to choose a sign system that's based on BSL. Ignoring FS2, CS and CA (they represent letters and sounds instead of concepts) then pretty much all the rest are indeed based on BSL, except for PGSS. I would prefer to have a sign system that doesn't alter the BSL signs as Maria has the ability to move her arms, hands and fingers reasonably well - only her fine motor skills need some work. 

Before choosing a sign language for Maria, I thought about the community of people she might communicate with. First is her family. Second is her school. Third are the neighbours and their children. Fourth is our church and the people we meet. Fifth is at the supermarket and sixth are our friends (in these austere times we see them much less). Apart from school, none of these people know BSL or Makaton. 

At home we normally speak to Maria and occasionally sign (although this is rare in practise). What if Maria reached the age of six and still couldn't speak legibly? Would she need a proper language like BSL? Who would she talk with: the British Deaf community? Seems unlikely since it took me over fifty years to meet a member of the Deaf community. All this means that Maria is going to lead a pretty isolated existence unless she learns to speak. What a bleak thought. Since Maria is probably going to live with us for some time as an adult then we'd better think carefully how we're going to communicate. Will it be English or will it be a sign system or even BSL?

An appreciation of the impact of all these sign systems has been witnessed first-hand by Frances Elton, a prominent member of the Deaf community, who summarises some of the experiments on deaf children by hearing officials during the past few decades and the impact they've had on the Deaf community. Here's the transcript of part of an interview she made in 2012

'The focus for the teaching was on deaf children understanding English. There was no template for this so various artificial language systems were created. The most commonly used is SSE (Sign Supported English), following the word order of English. A precursor of that was Signed English. Those were the two most-used in trying to develop English language skills. Then there was Paget Gorman, a sign system that was explored. Then Cued Speech as a way of helping develop spoken language. Makaton came in, really as a way to help the receiving of language, and is more suitable for those with learning difficulties. Then Total Communication, which was very prevalent and is now evolving into other ways. 

There are a number of artificial systems used in schools and these came about as teachers and educators considered what they thought best for deaf children, and prioritised speech as important. So from that the Cued Speech system was developed, the aim being to teach children how to articulate English and have a visual representation of the sound each articulation made. 

Paget Gorman was a sign system created to help develop the understanding of English word order, so the focus of signing and speaking was on word order. 

Signed English was to help with the reading of English, the grammar, how to recognise tense, that '-ed' represented the past and so on. 

Makaton was a created system that should have never really been used in schools [with deaf children]. It was suitable for those with learning difficulties or brain injury. Makaton borrows signs from BSL and then adapts them to facilitate simple communication with those with Down's Syndrome for example. It has been appropriated for BSL teaching and that should never really have happened. 

In most widespread use [in schools with deaf children] is SSE. Even if teachers are fluent in BSL, the focus of educators has always been on the acquisition of English to the same fluency. The idea being that on leaving school, the child would have the option to operate in BSL or English. It's helpful within the school environment to have written English but there needs to be a clarity and emphasis on the fact that the grammars of English and BSL are quite distinct and separate. 

Having gone through the education system I would say that most, on leaving school, revert to using BSL and all that implies, or remain isolated from the [Deaf] community. There is anecdotal evidence of this happening. One person for example, now is the most fluent of signers, grew using Cued Speech, Paget Gorman but that didn't impact on their sign language at all. They're fluent, they teach sign language. For others, their communication was more severely affected, particularly in communicating with other deaf people. The way they learnt through Paget Gorman was so restrictive, there was no ability to adapt and so causes isolation. 

These are not systems of the wise. They were created to benefit the hearing establishment, not the deaf children. There has been no profound or lasting benefit for the Deaf community; it has probably been a little damaging. A few lucky survivors have managed to retain and maintain fluency in BSL.' 

So, those Deaf children who weren't given the opportunity to learn BSL found themselves isolated from their own Deaf community; SSE, Paget Gorman and Makaton effectively isolated them from the community that would have treated them as equal members. The attempts by hearing people to force Deaf children to join the hearing community were resented by the Deaf community in much the same way as people committing genocide are resented by those whose race, community and culture are being eradicated. In case you might think I'm going too far with that analogy, these sentiments are implied in a recent short film on BSL Zone called The End, and were actually expressed by Alexander Graham Bell according to another short film, Confession

To a hearing English speaker, BSL appears to be missing indispensable grammatical features; so how is it that BSL users appear to be able to communicate so effectively without them? Languages like BSL don't appear to need an intricate and complex visual grammar. BSL's grammar is not trivial, judging by some of my text books, but it seems to be a lot simpler than English. It's this simplicity that argues in favour of using BSL for children with developmental delay. Few educators address this point. The fact that the word order is different in BSL compared to English seems trivial compared to learning the intricate complexities of English grammar. This is one reason why I haven't ruled out BSL as a possible future language for Maria. In fact, the potential of BSL has been overlooked by both the Deaf community and the hearing community, who view BSL as either a native language or a foreign language respectively. Either way, BSL is dismissed as inappropriate for people like Maria who are, in effect, hearing-mute. My gut feeling has always been to let Maria learn BSL, regardless.

But getting back to the original question of which system to choose for Maria, I was considering sign systems based on BSL, which left me with four possible candidates:  
1. British Signed English (BSE)
2. Makaton 
3. Signalong
4. Sign Supported English (SSE).
But in my heart-of-hearts I really wanted British Sign Language (BSL). 

I don't know enough about Signalong to comment on it but I do know about Makaton, which looks like a simple and pretty flexible sign system, nowadays offering SSE modeBSE mode and Function mode. I've yet to meet a BSL user who can recognise all the Makaton signs but ignoring this conundrum for a moment, Makaton seems to be popular and flourishing in the UK, particularly in Special Schools like Maria's. 

BSE strikes me as a bit long-winded and I don't feel it's that important for Maria to be grammatically perfect at this stage; she only needs to express herself in English and signs. That's why I'm interested in SSE, which uses BSL signs for key words but places them in English word order to reflect Maria's receptive language. 

Finding a happy medium between receptive and expressive language, I'd favour Maria learning SSE using unmodified BSL London and South East regional signs. Our family could be trilingual, using a mixture of English, SSE and BSL in whichever grammar was convenient. 

Looking at the sign systems supporting SSE, we have SSE itself and Makaton in SSE mode. If I were to choose Makaton then I'd want to substitute some of the Makaton signs with  commonly used BSL signs. 

Since Maria can grasp the idea of multiple signs for the same concept and given the popularity of Makaton and the fact Maria is already using it at school, it should be possible to add additional BSL signs to her existing Makaton vocabulary where necessary; I don't believe this would confuse her.   

So, in conclusion, it looks like the most practical approach is to choose Makaton in SSE mode but using the most prevalent BSL London and South East region signs in preference to the Makaton ones; that's going to be a lot of hard work. I can't help feeling it would be easier to just choose BSL. 

To help Maria's word articulation I'm happy with either CS or CA since neither is used for communication; Maria's special school uses CA.

Unfortunately none of my BSL dictionaries tell me in which UK region a sign is used, making it difficult to determine if a BSL sign is from the London and South East region or not; it would also help if they stated the UK prevalence of signs, so I could choose the most popular of several alternatives. 

Practically speaking, and to overcome the deficiencies in dictionaries I just mentioned, the best way for Maria to learn BSL is for the parents to learnt it first, preferably from a teacher who uses the London and South East regional dialect. So that's what I did. My teacher is Sandra Duguid and she runs a business called BSLworksTo digress a bit, a recent interview with Sandra in the UK Mirror newspaper sheds light on what happens in a country where the government of the day bails-out bankrupt banks but appears powerless to help disabled people running small but solvent businesses.

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