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What are they on about?

David Newnham builds the foundation for sign language with his brickie

How would you go about learning British Sign Language? From books? From the internet? From an interactive CD-Rom? Personally, I would recommend a bricklayer.

If that conjures up an image of someone waving a trowel from the scaffolding as if to say: "Send up more cement - and I could murder a Mars bar," then I'm sorry. What I mean to say, is that you can't do better than be taught by a real, live teacher. And it so happens that my teacher is a brickie.

"Today, we're going to learn some more vocabulary," he tells the class, then remembers his daytime job and adds: "VocabularyI that's a long word for me." He was, he explains, "no good at school - useless at English". But years later, after a chance meeting with a deaf person who was lost and confused, he decided to learn BSL, and found he was a natural. He's a natural teacher, too, and once you have dragged yourself out of the house, two hours in his evening class are worth a day spent on the DIY approach.

To be fair, all those books and CDs were never meant to be used for anything other than reference. Nobody expects to learn French from an English-French dictionary, so why try to learn BSL from a collection of signs?

The last straw for me was a website called, which used video clips to demonstrate 400 words. The inclusion of 30 phrases would, I reckoned, make this a viable learning tool. But then I read the phrases.

First came "What is your name?", then "What is the time?", which seemed fair enough. But the very next phrase was "Will you marry me?" Whoever compiled this list didn't hang about.

Before long, I had clear picture of this imaginary character. "I don't like tea". "I hate shopping". "I like cricket". "My father's name is Alan". Did the two of us have anything at all in common? By the time I reached "How much for the teddy bear?" and "I got a helicopter for my birthday", I decided that we didn't - a judgment that was vindicated by the last two phrases: "Your sister likes going to the cinema", and "French women are strange".

Really? Oh well - now I've a brickie for a teacher, such things needn't concern me any more.

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