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Sign Language Gain: BSL & Deaf Studies Trip to Prague

Junhui Yang, BSL & Deaf Studies, UCLan

Supported by UCLan’s Travel Bursary, a group of the BSL and Deaf Studies students and lecturers recently went on the course’s fourth European trip, the second time of visiting Prague in the Czech Republic. The main aim of the annual course trip is to expose students to other sign languages, and the way of life of sign language users in that country. First-hand experience is the most effective way of experiencing another language and culture, and the trip most certainly succeeded in providing this.

One of our longstanding Erasmus+ partner universities, Charles University, in Prague, runs a Deaf Studies course that is similar to UCLan’s programme and the students from both countries were very excited to experience sign language used by another nation – this mutual benefit for the students on both sides made the trip even more amazing. The students were able to glimpse another sign language, and compare and contrast the two. Both Czech Sign Language (CzeSL) and British Sign Language (BSL) are taught by Deaf teachers in their respective countries, so the students had the benefit of meeting Deaf sign language users from another country. In both countries, the courses have some deaf and hard-of-hearing students attending with support, so students were also able to see this similarity of inclusive education.

On arrival at Charles University, Dr Mirjam Friedova, Dean of Faculty of Arts, warmly welcomed us and gave a welcome speech presented in spoken English. At one side of the dean, a sign language interpreter interpreted from English into BSL and, on the other side, an interpreter worked from English into CzeSL. The students from both countries were fascinated to see two different sign languages in action at the same time, and the hearing students had the advantage of being able to hear the speech and then watch the translations into the two signed languages taking place. Dr Andrea Hudáková, Head of the Institute of Deaf Studies, gave a talk about the course programme at Charles University. Although the director is hearing, she is a fluent CzeSL user and gave her talk in CzeSL. This was interpreted into English by the CzeSL/English interpreter and then her English output was interpreted into BSL for the BSL users present. We were all very impressed by the language choice made by the director, as sign language was given the most prominent position.

Following the initial welcome speeches, the students from the CzeSL and Deaf Studies programme gave us interesting talks about their studies at Charles University and how much they have learnt about the language and culture of the Czech Deaf community. This included presentations of their recent project work and the history of the Czech Deaf community and deaf education. The Czech students gave their talks in spoken English, rather than in the spoken Czech, and it was amazing to see such second language proficiency. The presentations were simultaneously interpreted into BSL and CzeSL so that all participants had access to the information. Once again, the dual interpretation was smooth and effective.

On another day during our visit, the interpretation issue became even more fascinating. We were given talks by some of the students and teachers in CzeSL. The CzeSL was interpreted into spoken Czech, and the spoken Czech was then interpreted into spoken English, a third-stage interpretation. For the BSL users present, the spoken English was then interpreted into BSL. Despite the four-stage interpretation process, the message was still clear and understandable and all parties had full access to the original message. Of course, any responses that were given in BSL saw this process completely reversed, and the message went from BSL to English then to Czech and then finally into CzeSL! This was a hugely beneficial experience, as the students got to see spoken language interpretation (English/Czech) and sign language interpretation (English/BSL and English/Czech) all taking place and see the differences in interpretation across the signed and spoken language modalities. The spoken language interpreter had to take in some of the source language (taking bullet notes to aid memory) and then wait until the speaker paused so that they could then consecutively interpret the message into their spoken language. This is because two spoken languages cannot be used in the same room at the same time or people will not be able to hear either language! The sign language interpreter, however, was able to interpret alongside the speaker simultaneously, without requiring the speaker to pause every few minutes. The sign language and spoken language could both be produced at the same time and people could then opt to listen to the voice or watch the signed interpretation.

Before we set off on our trip, we made an effort to learn as much Czech Sign Language as possible so that our students had some minimal use of the language before we arrived. We were able to make use of the educational website called “Spread the Signs”, a multi-language online video dictionary, which students could use to look up the BSL and the CzeSL signs once they typed in an English word. We were also able to use some DVDs for learning CzeSL that Dr Naďa Hynková Dingová, educator of CzeSL interpreters from Charles University, gave us during her previous visit to UCLan. We are extremely grateful to her for this, and for her also significantly co-ordinating our two trips to Prague. We also made use of CzeSL videos, and worked hard to improve our CzeSL fingerspelling skills before setting off! Of course, by the time we arrived, the students had forgotten a lot of the vocabulary that they had accessed online; it wasn’t until they began to mix with the CzeSL users, and really experience the new sign language, that they began to be able to use basic CzeSL – the first-hand exposure was a natural way to pick up some of the language.

In Prague, the UK students had two CzeSL lessons, both two hours long, team-taught by four Deaf Czech Sign Language teachers, Radka Nováková and Jan Simuek, Milena Čiháková and Josef Waldmann. This covered basic greetings, questions, responses, and calendar terms, and gave the students just enough basic CzeSL skills to be able to communicate with Deaf people at the Deaf club we visited. The calendar signs were particularly interesting for us because, in BSL, the days-of-the-week and months-of-the-year are fingerspelt but in CzeSL, there are full signs for the terms that are very visual and were very interesting to learn. Next lesson, we were taught some colour and animal signs and the teachers used prompt cards with pictures on to help us to think visually. Some of the signs were easy to pick up, but some were much harder to master. We had to work hard to articulate some of the mouth patterns based on the Czech language (as we don’t know spoken Czech) and had to really focus to produce some of the CzeSL facial expressions that are not used in BSL. The sign for BLUE was a good example of how difficult our students found it to produce a sign with facial expression where only one cheek is puffed out and contacted by circular-movement of the back of the H-handshape, which the teachers patiently repeated for us! Some of the language games that we played whilst learning were very challenging, especially the ones based on cognitive memory team work skills. Overall, the teaching methods used were excellent. Two teachers were in the session, one male and one female, and one was very experienced and the other appeared to be newer to the teaching profession and acted as a kind of assistant. The benefit of this was that the main teacher would teach a sign, and any of the students who struggled to pick it up could turn to the assistant teacher for reinforcement of the sign. It was also good to see the two teachers using the CzeSL signs together, as this also acted as a natural reinforcement of the signs.

After our lessons, we had the opportunity to see a signed theatre performance, called ‘Seagulls’. The play was performed in CzeSL by three Deaf actors, and two hearing actors who provided voice-over into spoken Czech. Although our group could not understand the voice-over, it was fascinating to watch the show and be able to pick out some of the signs we had learnt during our teaching sessions. The performance was very visual, and with the addition of the stage setting and scenery, we were able to gain some idea of the content and the whole experience was thoroughly enjoyable. We also went to a café where sign language was used and to a Deaf club, and this gave us more chances to practice the signs we had learnt.

During our trip, we were also fortunate to be able to visit a school for deaf children. On our arrival here, the deputy director of the school, David Jorda, gave a talk about the Czech deaf education system and the language and communication methods used in the schools over there, including the use of sign language interpreters in the classrooms. David is Deaf and gave the talk in International Signs (IS). Our two sign language interpreters had received plenty of preparation, including a video of David using IS to watch, and so they were able to interpret David’s talk from IS into spoken English. The BSL users present were able to follow the IS with the aid of the Powerpoint slides in English that were presented alongside the talk, and the slides were also of benefit to the Interpreters working from the IS into English. It was nice to see how passionately the students from both countries reacted to seeing the International Sign in action. They were mesmerised by the visual complexity of this gestural language, and many of them pleaded with us to add some IS lessons to the programme while we were there.  

This was a very successful and enjoyable trip, and this is certainly reflected in the participants’ comments below:

I thought the trip was absolutely fantastic and very well organised.  The Czech students were lovely and helpful and made me feel at ease.  The sign language lessons were good however, I found the 2nd lesson more interactive and so enjoyed this more. The trip was well led by the tutors, and honestly, you three did a brilliant job. I haven't got any negative feedback at all. 

--- Deb Oreilly-keefe, UCLan student

Had an amazing time in Prauge was fantastic to meet the Deaf studies students from Charles University who gave up their time to take us to a local Deaf school, Deaf Cafe, Deaf club and a signed performance at the theatre. Big shoutout to everyone who made this trip such a memorable experience.

 ----Sam Davies, UCLan student

With my new Czech Friends… was a brilliant night and was able to understand Czech Signing with them and they learnt so much BSL!

--- Lauren Feeney, UCLan student

I really enjoyed those five days with you! And it was a big experience for me as well. Thank you all for being so positive and patient, curious and sharing and I look forward to see each other again!

– Vendula Chyska, Charles University student

Thank you to everyone involved in our fabulous trip to Prague. Students of Charles University and UCLan - you are an absolute credit to your university. It was a pleasure to be there with you all. A special thanks to the students (and staff) in Prague who put so much effort into arranging everything and making life so easy for us. A huge thank you also to the Prague public transport network! Love the trams!

– Frank Harrington, UCLan lecturer

The visit was a great success (despite some unseasonably cold weather on a couple of days) and our colleagues in the CSL interpreting team at Charles University are keen to formalise a partnership with us for future collaboration. During the trip, we visited a deaf school, the local deaf club and met fellow students and colleagues from Brno University. We were also taken to watch a play in Czech Sign Language and given a guided tour of Prague in addition to the academic elements of the visit, all of which gave the students a different perspective on deaf life and culture in the UK. During the whole time we were away, our students behaved in an exemplary fashion and were a credit to the UK, the university, the BSLDFST team but most importantly to themselves. It was a pleasure and a privilege to accompany them on this trip and everyone wishes to thank the university and School for the financial support that made the trip possible.

--- Martin Atherton, Deaf Studies Course Leader, UCLan lecturer