A school for deaf children has become the first in the country to offer pupils the chance to learn to sign in another language. The step was taken in order to fulfil the government’s ambition that every child should learn two languages in primary.
The idea that there is only one international sign language is a widely held misconception, says Enrique Canton, who is teaching French sign language to pupils at the Hamilton School for the Deaf in South Lanarkshire. Just as there are many spoken languages, each country has its own sign language, he explains, adding: “Thereafter, there are regional variations, just in the same way that hearing people have regional or local accents.”
Mr Canton, who is deaf, was raised in France and, following a short spell living in Spain, moved to Scotland 15 years ago after meeting a “Scottish lass”. He knows sign language in French, Spanish and British, as well as international sign language.
“It is widely recognised that learning a language can expand the mind and learning experiences, can improve future job prospects and open eyes to other parts of the world, cultures and careers, too” he says. “The only barriers to this learning experience for deaf children have been a lack of vision, funding and appropriate people to deliver the lessons. This, I am happy to say, is now changing.”
Mr Canton praises the head of Hamilton School, Eileen Burns, for her determination to expand languages for her pupils, calling her “an inspiration”. Ms Burns looked into offering pupils another sign language in an effort to deliver on the government’s policy that by 2020 children should learn a second language in P1, with a third introduced by P5 – the so-called 1+2 approach to modern languages.
“The first time I heard about the policy, I thought, ‘Well, our children are learning two languages already, English and British sign language [BSL]; maybe this doesn’t apply to us,” Ms Burns says. “But then I thought about it and decided, why shouldn’t it? This is the ideal opportunity to expose our children to another language.” The lessons in French sign language began in September with P4-7, but now all children at the 11-pupil school take part, barring those in the nursery.
“Some of our children have deaf parents and arrive at the school fluent in BSL but for other children their first language is English,” explains Ms Burns. “I was a bit worried that for some children whose BSL was just developing, it might be confusing to introduce another language.”
That has not proved to be the case; the children are learning the new language quickly and are interested in it, she says.
“Learning another language allows them to reflect on their own – to compare and contrast. That’s a very useful thing. I remember that Latin lessons were where I learned most of my grammar,” she adds.
Rachel O’Neill, an expert in special and inclusive education at the University of Edinburgh, and a former teacher of the deaf, is a fan of the work at Hamilton School. In Norway, deaf children learn British sign language as their foreign language, she says. However, with fewer than half-a-dozen deaf schools in Scotland and many deaf children educated in mainstream schools, opportunities to learn a foreign sign language are rare.
And, Ms Burns points out, language classes are frequently sacrificed to give the one-on-one support that many deaf children need so they can access the rest of the curriculum.
Mr Canton is calling for deaf children to be given the same opportunities as their hearing peers. When hearing pupils are learning French, deaf children should be able to learn other sign languages, he argues. “Surely this is the equivalent to hearing children learning a second or even third language from a hearing teacher?” he says.
‘Give us signing qualifications’
Deaf campaigners are calling for school qualifications in British sign language (BSL) to be introduced.
The Scottish government recently celebrated the fact that the majority of P1 children are now learning a foreign language under its 1+2 approach, where pupils begin learning a second language in P1, and a third in P5.
One of the languages schools can choose to deliver is BSL. However, at present, qualifications in BSL are aimed at adults, says Rachel O’Neill, an expert in special and inclusive education at the University of Edinburgh, and a former teacher of the deaf. She is calling for school qualifications to be introduced, from National 3 to Higher.
BSL is a language that pupils can use in Scotland – one that is useful for work – and if it becomes more widely known, the daily lives of deaf people will be less frustrating, she argues.
Ms O’Neill says: “Bilingual skills in BSL and English are extremely useful in a whole range of jobs from over-the-counter service to professions such as medicine.”