When I was first diagnosed with hearing loss forty years ago, and warned that the situation was likely to get progressively worse, I assumed that one day I might need to use sign language. Within months of the diagnosis I booked myself on a week-long Intensive Beginners course at the City Lit, in London (I lived in London then).
It was an excellent course. I’ve long forgotten the signs I learnt but some things I still remember, for example the very different grammatical structure of a sentence in sign compared to a sentence in spoken or written English.
When the week was over, though, I didn’t book any follow-ups.
I was in my mid-twenties. I could hear very well (except birds singing and other very high pitched sounds) and I had my life and many adventures ahead of me. I was lucky that my hearing loss was so slow and gradual I was able to slowly and gradually adapt to accommodate it. When I started having difficulty understanding speech I got hearing aids. When I couldn’t hear a normal alarm clock I got an especially loud variety (a rooster crowing, which must have caused some consternation for people in neighbouring hotel rooms when I was travelling a lot for work). Life went on, and I coped. In fact, I was pretty proud of how well I coped.
And then, as all readers of this blog know, my deafness reached the point where I wasn’t coping at all.
After it took a decisive turn for the worse in 2017, and before I had the news that I’d been approved for a cochlear implant, I made a list of things I might try to help me cope with the new situation. The list included having counselling, looking for new hobbies that didn’t involve hearing, getting more involved in campaigning………
What it didn’t include was learning sign language.
Maybe eventually I’d have turned to it if things had got desperate enough (who knows) but I think it was an interesting omission from my list. Despite being, by then, profoundly deaf for a considerable range of sound frequencies, I’m a classic post-lingual deaf person – my hearing loss developed after I’d acquired speech and language (long after….). I’m firmly embedded in the hearing world and I didn’t want to leave it. Learning a new language in your mid-sixties is a big step, but it wasn’t just that…….
I’ve no doubt that Nigel would have done whatever he could to help in any way, as he always has, but I’m very doubtful that our conversations in sign would ever have reached any degree of fluency, and how unspeakably miserable would that have been, for both of us?
Then there are my friends. I’ve read moving and very positive accounts of people who’ve lost their hearing in adulthood, learnt BSL, joined the Deaf community and formed fantastic new relationships with brilliant new friends – but I loved the brilliant friends I already had, thank you.
How about the serried ranks of social networks and acquaintances? Neighbours, dog walkers, people I vaguely know who take part in the things I take part in….they don’t sign. The world wouldn’t end if I couldn’t communicate with them, but it would be a sadder place.
What about hobbies? I’m very interested in archaeology and local history. I can join any activity or any group and the participants will be speaking English. What happens in the BSL world if you have a hobby, a passion, like this? Is it accessible only by the written word?? Or, can you manage to track down some fellow signing local history enthusiasts? Are there any? Reasonably near you?
The nub of it is that trying to join the Deaf (signing) community wouldn’t just have been very hard it would have meant changing my entire life. I’ve written before about sometimes feeling wistful imagining speaking a language (sign language) where I missed NOTHING, understood EVERYTHING, but that wouldn’t have compensated me for all the other things I would have lost.
Of course, I’m writing this from the happy place of being lucky enough to have the sort of deafness that a cochlear implant can help and even luckier that I met the eligibility criteria and got one. I had my chance and I grabbed it. I don’t NEED to sign now and I try to appreciate every day just how privileged I am to be in that position.
So…..are there readers of this who feel differently about sign language? Are you learning it? Are you thinking about learning it? What’s your view?
9 thoughts on “Why I didn’t learn sign language”
Hi Vera, how are you?
Funnily enough, I was asked about this recently. My answer was very much similar to yours. My whole life – my friends, family – are all part of the ‘hearing’ world. If I was to learn sign language to communicate, who would I communicate with? I think it’s a common misconception that people with hearing loss will then learn/or perhaps somehow have the immediate ability to use sign language!
I actually did learn level one BSL when I lived in the UK over 10 years ago. Not because I had a hearing loss, just because I was interested in it! – just a strange coincidence!
…Also, would I learn BSL or Spanish Sign language…that’s a whole other discussion!
Hope you’re well,
Hi Carly. I’m really well thank you.
Every now and then I find organisations getting the two groups mixed up. During the World Cup (a while ago I know…..) FIFA arranged for all the games to be available online with a sign language commentary. How fantastic. But then they go and spoil it a little bit by saying this will help the Deaf (yes) and people with hearing loss (no, no, overwhelmingly we don’t sign).
So much to learn!!!
Hi Vera Similar to other posts. Before I became profoundly deaf I thought signing would be a good thing. My husband and I did a course at night school and I went on to pass the Stage 1 examination, however, my husband didn’t really take to it so it was pointless carrying on as I would have no-one to sign with. As you say, so few people in the hearing world sign and I didn’t know anyone else who was deaf. I still attend lip reading classes, and have done for 10 years, because I love that we are all in the same boat and everyone understands. Even with my cochlear I still find the lessons interesting and once a month there is also a coffee morning – I call it a ‘pardon’ morning, although now I have my implant I don’t have to say that any more! Anne xxx
Hello Anne. Yes, “pointless” is a good word in this context. Not knowing a single person with even rudimentary sign language is a very big barrier! Vera
Hello Vera. I have been deaf for more than 50 years now and like you have never learnt to sign beyond helping my children with brownie badges! It is for much the same reasons as you – I don’t know anyone else who uses sign language. However some years ago I joined a lip reading group – lovely people and good fun but our teacher left after a few terms and I didn’t go back. I think lip reading comes naturally to anyone with hearing problems but the social inclusion of the group was an unexpected bonus. We were all deafies in the same boat and all able to have fun and laugh with each other. So I suppose it is the feeling of belonging to a community – whether signing, lipreading, following Stagetext or whatever, that is the greatest benefit. I am not brave enough to put myself forward for a cochlear implant but am a ‘ Vera follower’. Another group!! All the best Sue
Hi Sue. Lip reading groups are fabulous things. I’m sorry yours came to an end. Mine transmogrified into more general hearing support, with a little bit of lip reading thrown in, which is also great. As you say, its knowing that everyone is in the same boat and being with people who know JUST what you mean……..
PS You don’t have to be brave to put yourself forward for an implant. It was all much easier than I expected.
You echo my thoughts entirely. I always feel that I neither fit onto the deaf or hearing world!