6. The Deaf Individual and the Community

This final theme will build on the work from the other themes. It will extend the scope of DCAL to issues in the study of language use in the BSL signing community. There are two main areas within this theme:
(1) unimodal and bimodal bilingualism in the BSL community
(2) the development of a sign language interpreter aptitude test.

All British Deaf people are 'bimodal bilinguals' to some extent (i.e., they know both a signed language and some spoken language). BSL and English are different languages, but they are in close contact with each other. This contact has some clear effects on BSL, such as the fingerspelling system and English mouthings that are used with some BSL signs. But there are other English influences on BSL as well (e.g., signers may often produce signed sentences using English word order). How much English elements are used within BSL appears to depend on many factors, including how fluent the signer is in BSL versus English, how well the signer knows the other people in the conversation, and how formal or casual the situation is. Currently, our team is investigating the use of English mouthing used in BSL by different groups, such as Deaf native signers, Deaf late learners of BSL, and hearing native and non-native BSL/English interpreters. We are interested to investigate to what extent some mouthings are fully integrated into BSL vocabulary and are used by all or most signers in a range of different situations, and to what extent others are borrowed from English and only used by some signers in some situations.

Many Deaf people are also 'unimodal bilinguals': they may also know and use more than one sign language. Our research team is planning studies with Deaf people who know two sign languages to see how the the signed language bilingual mind works and to compare our results with those from research into spoken language bilinguals. In particular, we are interested to know if knowledge of two sign languages 'compete' in the signer's mind, so that knowledge of two signs for the same concept causes interference and make bilingual signers respond more slowly to tests of language knowledge. This work will focus on signers in Australia and the UK who use both BSL/Australian Sign Language (which are closely related sign languages) and Irish Sign Language (not related to BSL).

Related work is looking at the development of a sign language interpreter aptitude test. We hope that such a test will be able to identify individuals who (a) have a greater-than-average potential to learn a sign language and become fluent in it and (b) are more likely to become an effective sign language interpreter. Individuals who perform well on our aptitude test could receive sign language instruction and interpreter training specially designed to focus on their skill development and fast-track them into training. This is important because so few highly-skilled BSL/English interpreters are currently available, and much time is spent training individuals who may not be suitable for this work. A sign language aptitude test would also be of interest because it would enable us to see whether sign language learning skills are no different to those required for learning a spoken language or whether they also involved additional skills (such as specific visual-spatial skills). A pilot version of this test has been created, using a number of different subtests on English, BSL and language learning skills in general.

Strand leader: Dr. Adam Schembri
Researchers: Professor Bencie Woll, Dr. Christopher Stone, Robert Adam
PhD student: Donna Lewin