I chose this challenge because in the days when I used to work as a subtitler for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, whenever I told anyone what I did for a living, their immediate response was “Oh, so do you know sign language?” And I would always have to reply to the negative. Subtitles have been provided for the deaf and hard of hearing since the 1980s, originally on Ceefax/Teletext page 888 and now in the digital age via whatever subtitle button your remote control has. They are required by law for nearly all programmes on the five main network channels. A certain percentage of programmes now also have to have a sign language interpreter superimposed on the screen – usually ones shown late at night or on CBeebies on a Sunday afternoon – and unlike subtitles, you cannot switch the sign language interpreter off.
However, subtitling and signing are not done by the same people and are not connected in any way apart from their target audience. Though of course lots of people also watch subtitles who aren’t deaf or hard-of-hearing – people who don’t have English as a first language, people at the gym, people trying to watch TV while doing the hoovering or while their partner natters to someone on the phone, people who like laughing at the mistakes made by voice recognition software on the news, and people trying to make sense of fast-talking, fast-walking jargon-heavy American medical or police dramas. Subtitling simply involves putting the words on the screen. I say “simply” but it certainly used to require a decent degree of skill, editing text down to meet a set reading speed which was meant to allow audiences to read the subtitles whilst still having enough time to be able to watch what was happening on the screen. But the edited subtitles still had to reflect the style and flavour of the programme. Subtitles had to be coloured and positioned appropriately for each speaker. Sighs, laughter and sound effects had to be included where necessary, taking care not to patronise a deaf viewer by labelling the obvious (e.g. writing “EXPLOSION” on a scene of clearly visible bombing, fire and carnage) but instead providing crucial information audible but absent from the scene. Punchlines of jokes had to be held back to ensure that a deaf viewer wouldn’t be ahead of the game. Foreign languages would be transcribed (not translated) and song lyrics timed to perfection to try and give the deaf viewer a hearing viewer’s experience. Voiceover narratives, off-screen telephone or electronic speech had to be indicated as such. Camera shot changes were respected. You had to take care not to cover up speakers' mouth so deaf viewers could lip-read, and any on-screen captions had to be kept clear. There were painstaking arguments between subtitlers about spelling (fed up or fed-up, Grandad or Granddad?) and continuation dots. And so on and so forth. A lot of hard work was done by some very brilliant people. The same went for live work - our Channel 4 News subtitling team had the most amazing stenographer who could pound out over 200 words a minute without making a single mistake.
Now an awful lot of subtitling is done verbatim (influenced by American closed captioning), and for a lot of television programmes has to be done in real time by voice recognition software or respeaking. It’s all just got to be bashed out as quickly and cheaply as possible. The DVD market has driven costs down and down, which means that a lot of its subtitling is shipped out to teams of low-paid subtitlers in India and Kenya, who often have only a basic grasp of English slang and culture so make some absolutely terrible mistakes. A lot of UK-based freelance subtitlers have had to take massive pay cuts and/or find other work. It's a job that I loved, but haven't done for over five years now.
But anyway, back to sign language. The signing on television, even if it is relegated to the small hours, is at least still done in the UK. And signing also has a link to my next life, working as an infant language acquisition project research assistant, since baby sign language classes are ever rising in popularity. The idea behind them is that babies can understand an awful lot more than they can say, and at a certain age they are likely to be more adept at using hand movements than mouth movements, so if you teach them signs rather than words, they may be able to communicate at a younger age and therefore get less frustrated. Frankly, this is mostly bullshit. Babies can certainly pick up the signs, but at a pre-vocalisation age they at best just do them as a set response when you say the word to them, rather than actually using the signs to initiate communication. And if they do start to use them to initiate communication, it is at an age when they could learn to talk anyway, and signing almost seems to impede rather than help their language development, in that they are actually later at learning to say the words. In short, our unofficial observation at the university (since this wasn’t what we were looking at) was that babies who learn to sign use signs, but babies who don’t just learn to say the words instead. Signing effectively makes babies a bit lazy about talking.
Anyway, I’d always felt bad about spending the best part of a decade working for the deaf population but not actually knowing any British Sign Language. There was always the off-chance I might meet a fan of mine and need to communicate with them, you see. (“Those Pet Rescue subtitles were so exquisite they made me weep. And as for what you did with Trans World Sport the other night – well, words fail me...” – OK, so my head was full of ridiculous fantasies, but surely someone was out there enjoying my work?)
To begin to rectify this gap in my knowledge, despite my opinion about them, I did a baby signing course with Charlotte when she was around eight months old. She showed absolutely no interest in it as she had no need for it. She could tell me quite clearly, for example, when she had finished her dinner by simply sweeping all the leftovers on to the floor with a single arm movement. But she did enjoy a song about a cat called Jessie. Song? Yes, all baby signing classes consist of is learning a few action songs before you all go to have a cup of tea. A hearing mother to two deaf children once lamented to me that it would be so nice if these classes were actually teaching babies a proper means of including her offspring in conversation. And baby signing classes (and Mr Tumble) don’t teach British Sign Language proper, but rather Makaton, though this does use plenty of British Sign Language signs. However Makaton has only taken BSL’s nouns and makes no use of its grammar. And Makaton is generally aimed at children with other disabilities than hearing impairment.
So I set myself the challenge of taking a proper course in BSL. I’d originally planned to take an introductory evening class at York College, the only one locally on offer, but it turned out that it clashed with my pilates class on Thursdays. Plus it was very expensive. And it seemed quite heavily focused on deaf awareness training – nothing wrong with that, but I’d already covered quite a lot of that sort of material while learning to be a subtitler.
So searching on Google, I came across an online BSL course which only cost 15 pounds, run by an organisation called british-sign.co.uk. I have no idea who they are or what they stand for – the course seems to have been designed and set up by a guy called Simon, whose hair changes alarmingly between video clips and who looks barely out of his teens. But it more than did the job, covering the finger spelling alphabet, introductions (where you live, family, age, work, hobbies etc), colours, numbers, money, telling the time, days of the week, months, seasons and food. (Though a lot of the food vocabulary was rather teenage boy influenced – pizza, ketchup, chips, bacon...) It also taught you some basic grammar so you could start to see the differences between English and British Sign Language. “What is your name? My name is Rebecca” literally translates as: “Name you what?” “Name me what Rebecca.” There are also no tense markers in BSL – as in Chinese (an uninflected language) you mark the timing of activities using adverbs, as in “Yesterday I go swimming.” “Tomorrow I go swimming.” It also covered the importance of facial expressions and mouthing words when signing. This is because many signs have more than one meaning - for example please and thank you, how are you? and I'm fine, so need other cues to distinguish them.
I really enjoyed doing an online course like this, as I could just dip in and out of it whenever I had a spare few minutes, and I could set the pace that I worked at, and take the assessments as and when I was ready, rather than having to do weekly homework and revision for a teacher. But what an online course doesn’t give you is any practice with other people to get you used to real-time signing interaction. And you also don’t get any feedback about your own signing, which you would do in a classroom situation. It was much easier to remember signs that were basically mimes of actions in the food or hobbies units (e.g. for banana you mime peeling a banana; for tennis, you mime hitting a ball with a racket), than ones for more abstract time concepts like next or yesterday, and so it might have been good to talk to others for tips as to how they went about it.
The course had a great finger-spelling game which really helped you get quicker at it, but I still feel like I would need months of practice before I could actually watch someone finger spelling and work out what they were saying without a pen and paper to hand and asking them to repeat it five times. On this course, you could just keep playing the videos over and over until you grasped what was being said, even in the assessments, and this again would have been different in a class. And not having any kind of webcam/Skype link, the assessments were only able to test your understanding. And because you could complete a unit then go straight on to the assessment, you perhaps didn’t necessarily need the same level of absorption as you would if you were studying at home and then travelling elsewhere to take a test. The assessments were mostly single word answers or multiple choice questions, but if you did retake a particular test to improve your score, you at least got a different set of questions second time, which was a nice feature. One assessment did involve a little bit of your own work as you had to read through the websites of five different charities that work with deaf people and write a summary of what each charity did and then upload it for Simon (or one of his minions, should he have them) to read.
But I am really pleased and impressed with how much I learned from the course, and what good value it was. I have now completed all seven units and have a certificate to prove it. It's been a big part of my life for the past two months so it would be great to try and keep it up and learn some more.