Fringe Interview - Professor Graham Turner

A photo of people in an outdoor bar.

We interviewed Professor Graham Turner about his show at the Fringe this year called Speech Sucks: The Future Signs. You can read our full review of the show here

What was the aim of your Fringe show?

My research focuses on British Sign Language (BSL), and right now, we are building up to launching a BSL Bill in the Scottish Parliament – so my Fellowship has been associated with promoting public dialogue around this often hidden language. The whole Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, via the Beltane Network for Public Engagement, is designed to bring complex ideas out into wider public dialogue in an entertaining way, and that's what we hoped to do.

What can venues do to increase their accessibility to sign language users?

Three things come to mind. Firstly, venues can hire BSL-English interpreters to facilitate access – however, they need to bear in mind that simultaneous interpreting is highly complex work, and if you want it doing meaningfully, then you need to secure professional services. That means hiring fully qualified people, not just 'someone who can sign' or a 'trainee' interpreter. There are national registers run by NRCPD and SASLI which are, in effect, your guarantee that you're getting someone who knows their onions.

Secondly, many venues do remarkably little to publicise the shows they're trying to make accessible to the relevant community. So I would encourage them to invest time in liaising with community organisations to build up a more profound relationship, rather than just tossing an occasional bone to Deaf people and then wondering why it isn't always devoured terribly enthusiastically. If they do so, then they will start to learn – and this is the third point – that there is a thriving BSL arts scene, and that if they really want to take the Deaf community seriously, they should be programming shows originated, designed and delivered directly in BSL as well as those where BSL is an after-thought. As companies like Deafinitely Theatre have shown with their recent production at the Globe in London, there is a significant hearing audience for signed arts performance work. Precisely in the spirit of our Fringe show this week, let's see more of it!

Is sign language becoming more popular?

That's a difficult question. In the hearing world, definitely yes. Since BSL teaching was professionalised through the work of the Deaf academics, Clark Denmark and Frances Elton, at Durham University in the 1980s, many thousands of hearing people have enthusiastically studied BSL at all levels. Adult education colleges have suffered cutbacks in more recent times which have perhaps made it trickier for many people to find classes – and they have also been more reluctant to pay professional wages to Deaf BSL teachers, which of course reduces the quality of the learning experience for students and creates a vicious circle. On the other hand, the whole phenomenon of 'baby signs' – lots of hearing parents discovering that early use of signing in communication with their infants enables children to communicate from a younger age, with consequent apparent improvements in cognition and interpersonal socialisation – has excited the hearing world all over again about the potential of sign languages.

However, the irony – and it's far from funny – is that, even while hearing people want their children to learn to sign, society is also strengthen in its belief that DEAF children should receive cochlear implants as babies and be taught to speak rather than being allowed to sign (as they otherwise naturally would). The result is a very real prospect that numbers of Deaf BSL users will fall in the decades ahead, at the same time as the numbers of hearing signers continue to grow. Scholars in the UK and elsewhere have described what's happening as 'linguistic genocide' – strong words to draw attention to a very real threat to the future of signing communities.

Would you recommend any courses to learn sign language?

I'm not in a position to quality-check classes. But I would stress two things. One, look specifically for BSL classes – there are other forms of signing, and hearing people sometimes get very confused. For example, quite a lot of folk come across Makaton: but this isn't a fully-developed natural language – it's just a very small, limited set of signs (largely adapted from signs originating in BSL) which is used mostly with people who have learning disabilities. It's not used by the British Deaf community, unlike BSL which is the language that has arisen naturally in the Deaf world here, and has been evolving continuously since at least the 16th century.

And the second point is that one should, in my view, seek out Deaf teachers. It is possible for hearing people to become fluent in BSL, and to study language pedagogics etc – but it's ultimately not possible for them to experience life as a Deaf BSL user, and so the cultural insight a learner can receive from a good Deaf teacher can never quite be matched. That's not to say that all Deaf people are perfect BSL teachers as a matter of course, obviously! They still need to train and get to grips with the linguistic structure, teaching methods, and so on. With good input, though, I'd defy pretty much anyone not to have great fun learning BSL – it will stretch your mind, open you up to entirely different ways of seeing the world and expressing yourself, and introduce you to a rich and vibrant linguistic community full of warmth, wit and wisdom.

What percentage of programmes on television are signed? Is this increasing?

Again, it depends what you're actually asking – 'interpreted into BSL' or 'delivered directly in BSL'? It won't surprise you that I think the latter is the more important figure. Sadly, there has never been a very strong television output created in BSL – just a few shows, the longest-running of which is of course the BBC's 'See Hear!' which has come and gone over decades now, and currently foregrounds BSL content much more than it sometimes has in the past. The most exciting current development is the existence of digital channels, which can put the technology required for producing and disseminating signed programmes into the hands of a much wider body of people. The British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust's BSL Zone is, I think, the one to watch – they are thinking increasingly creatively about how to empower Deaf people to produce content in BSL. 

In the same vein as my comments above, though, one of the intriguing prospects is the growing appreciation that signed material can be appreciated by hearing non-signers as well as Deaf people – in other words, we're not just talking about a small niche audience. The best example right now is The Tribe – this 2014 film won awards at the Cannes Film Festival, despite the fact that it is 100% in sign language and has no subtitles or voice-over, and – mark my words! – it is going to be popular in UK arthouse cinemas as soon as it gets here. So the future may yet look extremely rosy – so long as the communities in which signing is most 'at home' are protected and deaf children nurtured as sign language users.

Locations: Edinburgh

Tags: interview, fringe, festivals

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