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Sign in our times;Hands on

Interest in sign language is increasing and a multimedia CD-Rom is the perfect tool to help you learn, says Sally McKeown.

British Sign Language (BSL) is enjoying something of a renaissance. All around the UK, colleges are over-subscribed for the introductory BSL Stage 1 qualification and many companies are encouraging employees to attend deaf awareness sessions as well as learn rudimentary skills.

The resurgence of interest is ironic when you consider the chequered history of the language, which has been derided and even banned during the 20th century. BSL was a hindrance during the age of radios and telephones, but thanks to television and multimedia, it is coming into its own again and people can see the beauty and power of this most expressive language.

As BSL is dependent on movement and facial expressions, you can't learn it successfully from books and, in an ideal world, students would enrol in a class and spend time at the local deaf club to perfect their signing. But this is not always possible. Now, with CD-Roms, there are interactive learning materials which can be used outside the classroom.

Speciality Software's British Sign Language Dictionary (pound;45) for PCs has an alphabetical dictionary and word lists sorted into topics - eg food and drink, transport and travel or emotions. It also features a quiz where you see a sign then pick a meaning from a list. This is absorbing but can be a mite surreal - especially when the choices are forgive, lager, hamster.

Once you've made your choice, a video window opens and the signers let you know if you're right or wrong. This is much more entertaining than the on-screen ticks and crosses of most animations and you realise how much is conveyed by body language as the facial expressions range from sorrow to mirth to comic disbelief. Video quality is not always top notch and it would be difficult to learn from it, but it's a good reference tool.

Sign Now! is another dictionary, but you access its 3,500 signs by typing in or clicking on a word, or by clicking on a hand shape. It also features a quiz, and users can learn signs by watching video clips which can be slowed down or freeze-framed.

The nearest thing to a course on disk comes from Sign Communique. Its Sign It! disk has over 200 video clips of conversations on topics that students need to study for Stage 1 and Stage 2 exams. Just as students of spoken languages move from learning single words to phrases to the creative use of language, so BSL users need to get to grips with conversations signed at normal speeds.

Users of older technology can also snap up some useful resources. If you have access to a CD-i player, try ESLI's Sign Language, a "phrase book" for help in everyday situations covering such subjects as greetings, food amp; drink, work, weather, holidays family, numbers and colours (time and calendar).

If you want to practise the equivalent of reading and writing skills in BSL, get hold of the Sign Graphics set from Semerc. This uses the framework program My World 2 for Acorn and PC, which lets you create still versions of signs for bilingual materials or for worksheets. There is an Acorn-only version which includes finger-spelling fonts and a small collection of signs for everyday words.

You'll also enjoy Elmer a CD-Rom produced by Judy Brooks, of the BBC in conjunction with TAG Developments. This is a multimedia version of the famous story about an elephant by David McKee. Each page of the book has three screens: one for pictures, one for signing and one for text. The signing is provided by Lesley McGilp who is well known in deaf circles for her work on the BBC programme See Hear.

British Sign Language Dictionary. Price: pound;45. Sign Now!. Price: pound;59 (single user)pound;119 (network). Sign It!. Price: pound;44. Elmer. Price: pound;10.99. All available from The Forest Bookshop. Tel: 01594 833858 or 01594 833334. . Sign Language. Available from McNo Multimedia Services. Tel: 01206 751143. Sign Graphics for Acorn. Price: pound;59. My World 2 for PC. Price: pound;45. Both available from Granada Learning. Tel: 0161 827 2927.

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