Should people with hearing loss attend BSL classes?

I’ve been teaching BSL levels 1 and 2 for eight years. In that time, I have had several deafened and HOH students. Some have had CIs (cochlear implants) but the majority have had hearing aids and varying degrees of deafness. What is really striking is that people with hearing loss seem to find it harder to adjust to using their eyes to receive communication through signing or lipreading. I always use a range of visual aids to support my teaching – pictures, powerpoints and handouts. It does help, but the deafened and HOH students always need more input, and I always feel that it is important to check they’ve understood the lesson topic before attempting to move on. The deafened and HOH forums on email and Facebook often have people saying they tried BSL classes but they couldn’t get on with it, or that they could not understand the teacher.
Do you think that perhaps deafened and HOH students are so focused on trying to utilise whatever residual hearing they have that they can’t switch off from listening? Or could it be that hearing people in a BSL class support each other and explain things to each other, which means deafened/HOH students may be missing out on a vital part of BSL learning? Or a bit of both? I’d be really interested to get your views on this as it’s something I have been wondering about a lot for a few years.


Deafauntie says:
I too have seen this for myself and this would make a great piece of research for someone! (DCAL, perhaps?) I would agree with all the above suggestions and it is probably a mixture of all of them.
People with an acquired hearing loss attending a BSL class have several layers of learning and anxiety to cope with. Their motivation for attending must in part be due to the desire to acquire a new language so that they can make a sideways move into another culture.
When they realise they are not keeping up, they panic thinking the journey is not going to be as easy as they had hoped and see yet another door closing. Those who are learning because their own family or friends have encouraged then to perhaps realise the family and friends need to attend the course too, and then worry how they are going to teach them the signs they are learning.
Hearing students of BSL come with quite different motivations and are usually keen and ready to go (remember some of them don’t make it either). Hearing people and people with acquired hearing loss learn at different speeds (I have no way of proving this, but agree with you that this is so) and so perhaps need separate classes? This is something the City Lit (London Adult Education) provided at one time in recognition of this and their classes were successful. HoH and deafened people coming to a class are also dealing with what has happened to them and a BSL class just reminds them of this over and over again. And of course BSL tutors are trained to teach hearing students and the teaching itself is geared to hearing people.
It could also be that people with hearing loss are being given advice which does not actually address their needs. Maybe they should not be learning BSL at all – or at least not in the early days? Maybe they need classes which focus on clear communication strategies that feel real and congruent with their own experiences?
I’d love to hear what ex students have to say about this vexing but important question.

9 responses to “Should people with hearing loss attend BSL classes?

  1. Speaking as someone who was born deaf and grew up in a hearing family, then attended a Deaf school that discouraged BSL. Then went out into the world of Hearing people 100% socially and in the workplace. I did once attempt to learn BSL as I felt cut off and the deaf often demanded BSL.

    My main difficulty was oddly the grammar of BSL,and the mannerism of the Deaf world. It was much easier to use sign supported English. Over time I withdrew from the Deaf social circles because the culture of the BSL language and manners was too much “in your face” and not subtle in comparison with the wide world of languages. Note that I also studied German, French and other languages.

    I would consider myself unfortunately in “no man’s land” of languages and BSL and even ASL. There are no areas of my life in which I can truly relax even socially.

    The only times I can truly relax are with like minded deaf people with similar upbringing, experiences, and who do not use BSL.

    A daughter of a deaf friend similar to myself, she noticed this and did a thesis on this very subject! She passed with distinction. She made some excellent observation about the issue of deafness and various languages used.

    Her findings were such that it is nothing to do with the level of hearing loss or usage, but everything to do with the language that helps the deaf person to survive and grow in their immediate surroundings, that heavily influences the way the BSL is rejected naturally on the basis that it does not really help in day to day survival of the hearing world and only in select social circles.

    When people like myself are rejected purely on that basis, it does not encourage the development of BSL skills in the long term or provide the motivation to pass the levels required. It is easy to learn BSL, but harder to get accepted despite having an “accent” with your BSL attempts at communicating with others.

    I have often been insulted back with the BSL sign of “You are not deaf! you are hearing !!…….

    Teaching methods? I would highly suggest that you also include real time social events, take your students out of the safe classroom environment, and make them socialise in BSL only. Allow them to make faux pas mistakes and grow from that point onwards and forwards until they have complete confidence.

  2. I totally agree with laraine s last point. When I lost my hearing in my first year of university, going from HOH to profoundly deaf in a matter of weeks, I plunged into learning BSL and going to deaf club, but was an emotional wreck and never settled into the deaf community as a result. What I really needed was help in learning communication strategies and emotional support in dealing with the changes I was going through, which the Deaf community wasn’t able to do. But sadly there only seems to be the Link Centre in Eastbourne providing this service. I did persevere with the BSL and am pretty fluent now but agree it does take longer when you are dealing with the emotional fall out of losing your hearing

    • Hi Ruth,

      You mention the Link Centre’s support of people who have become profoundly deaf. I’ve heard very good reports about their Intensive Rehabilitation Programme (“IRP”) which I believe they now run occasionally up and down the whole UK. By the way, the Link Centre is now called Hearing Link. Here’s a link to their website page about IRP.

      • Ruth matthews

        Yes I did the course in 2006, 18 years after losing my hearing! It was still extremely helpful and I would recommend it to any deafened person.

  3. BSL is not allowing lipreading in same way as Lipspeakers and SSE is allowing us to make full understanding of what is said. This is why BSL is not suitable to HoH. Firstly, we use our hearing aids and our whole family, friends use spoken language. It is not natural for us not to lipread, it is ingrained in HoH to lipread. To be fair everyone lipreads to some extend.
    We also use hearing loops and speech to text, which give us full access to language. Of course not all HoH can utilise loops but it is important for HoH to be aware of the options available to them, so they can decide what works for them.

  4. Carole Griffiths

    I too tried BSL classes. I am profoundly deaf and wear Hearing Aids. Having lip read all my life I found it almost impossible to focus on peoples hands rather than their lips. My eyes kept straying all the time. Also I was one of only 2 deafened students the other lady gave up after about 2 months. I found the hearies were nearly all Social workers and were able to practice every day whereas I knew no one else who signed so could not practice. I found myself slipping behind the class despite my teachers best efforts

  5. I was born deaf and bought up as an oralie. I learned BSL when I was 21 alongside my university degree (I had to pay separately as it was a different college and no discount for deaf/poor people not on benefits and skip some classes when the uni changed my timetable on me). I didn’t experience the troubles outlined in this post – but maybe that’s because I’ve never had hearing to lose.

    I found learning sign relatively easy; much easier than I had expected. My reception is much better than my production and I really enjoyed it and do find it useful even if I don’t socialise in the Deaf community much. My BSL grammar stinks but that’s partly due to my own language impairment and difficulties with English grammar and my BSL teachers not having good enough English to understand my grammar questions – i.e I don’t really have good grammar in either language which I didn’t realise till after 2004.

    In my CACDP syllabus (circa 2000-2006) I would have liked more focus on grammar/structure/constructs sooner rather than later cos BSL level one feels like it gets you into bad SSE habits without strongly establishing how BSL /really/ works. I was hopeful for the BSL Academy stuff which looked like they were going to teach grammar first, vocab and fingerspell later but it never seemed to get off the ground.

    I did get into trouble from one sign tutor for lipspeaking/lipreading a bit much which I learned to do less. I enjoyed the break from listening and found learning BSL improved my reception of speech as well as sign because I learned to pick up body language and improve my visual awareness. It was also the beginning of this weird “non lipspeaky sign” trend which I find very odd and hard to follow.

    I plan to try some of the online BSL courses once I’ve finished a current work course and see if reading about the grammar in context from the beginning helps me work my BSL grammar out a lot more.

  6. Elizabeth Summerfield

    I too attended BSL level 1, and I wholeheartedly agree with the comments above re HoH people and those whose first language is English. There were 12 in my group, and one other HoH girl, who could however, sign in Spanish, as she was from Madrid.

    The teacher’s English was good – I don’t think she was born Deaf, and she could speak clearly. Her hearing loss, however, meant that (I think) she didn’t know that she was whispering, and the others coud hear her and I couldn’t. I much preferred our occasional replacement teacher who went Deaf at 3, and who didn’t whisper – it levelled the playing field for me, and I loved his sense of humour.

    I also agree with tthe comment above about practising – even though I do contract work for a Disability charity, I rarely come into contact with Deaf people, and most of those I’ve encountered have not been friendly or encouraging when I tried my level 1 SSE on them.

    We were taught what I recognised as SSE and fingerspeling, and I would have preferred to have been taught grammar and syntax first. Apart from the fact that it would have been more interesting, it would have helped me to engage better with the Deaf people I met. I wonder if the designers of the course haven’t taken into account the different needs and learning styles of hearing people – the Deaf community seems very dismissive of hearing people’s attempts to communicate.

    The other thing I can’t get my head around is why you’re taught to lipspeak at the same time – given the difference in grammar, it’s very difficult to mean, ‘My name is Liz – what’s your name?’ when signing ‘name me Liz, name you what?’ Can anyone shine a light on how to do this fluently?

  7. Like others above I have acquired hearing loss and tried BSL classes, along with my partner, a few years ago. We were joint bottom of the class and I have never tried again. Like the others I just couldn’t get into the way of looking rather than listening, I also went to lip-reading classes and was pretty poor at that too, but I find since that I automatically lip-read a bit, and can’t hear people if they put their hands in front of their mouths. The basic issue is whether you want to join a world of BSL communication. The only place I would use that would be the theatre where there are signed performances. Our local theatre has a Sennheuser loop system, which works well, but is no good if the cast shout, babble, are accompanied by music, or are amplified. I’m trying to persuade them to have subtitles at one of their regular performances.

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