Silent Child film shows why all children should learn sign language, says Suffolk Little Signers Club leader
The power of sign language to transform the lives of children with hearing loss has been highlighted by an Oscar-winning film starring six-year-old Maisie Sly, who is profoundly deaf.
But, say those in the know, while British Sign Language (BSL) has obvious benefits for those with hearing difficulties it also provides a vital connection and understanding for everyone when other members of the community can join in too.
Ali Hobson learnt to sign when she worked with an adults with hearing issues and now runs Little Signers Club classes, teaching babies and pre-schoolers - most of whom have normal hearing - and their parents the skills.
“When my eldest son (Elliot, now six) was born a friend told me how beneficial signing to a baby would be so I decided to teach him some basic signs,” she says. “When my second son (Joseph, now three) came along, signing with him became second nature to all our family.
“Pre-verbal children can use gestures or signs to communicate their needs - for example, milk, cuddle, mummy or daddy. When my son was six months old he could sign these things, meaning you can address those needs before children can speak, reducing tantrums and distress.
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“As time goes on, it can be used as an aid to developing speech. For example, my youngest used to say several words that all sounded the same so we used sign language to work out which word he actually meant. It’s also good for children who had delayed speech.”
“Pre-schoolers and older children can use it to support language development, spellings and literacy too. Children and adults with other invisible disabilities find signed communication a lifeline.”
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Ali is supporting calls for BSL to be made part of the national curriculum, both for its ability to enhance all children’s learning and as a tool to open up a wider world of communication to those whose hearing is compromised.
It’s an issue that was discussed by MPs last week in the first ever parliamentary debate to be broadcast with simultaneous live interpretation in British Sign Language. At the start of the debate a number of MPs highlighted the story of The Silent Child, which won best live action short film at the Oscars on March 4. Set in rural England and inspired by real life events, the film centres around a profoundly deaf four-year-old girl who lives in a world of silence until a social worker teaches her to communicate through sign language.
Although ministers say they have no plans to change the current national curriculum Ali is hopeful the campaign will eventually succeed.
“The Silent Child highlights the isolation of children with the invisible disability of hearing loss and as a result British Sign Language and hearing issues, particularly for young people, are being given a global stage,” she says. “That can only help. The fact that BSL was being discussed in parliament is all part of that.
“We really ought to be teaching this in schools because it is so valuable. My six-year-old signs because I sign and if ever he were to meet someone who is deaf he would be able to communicate with them. It adds another layer to language skills.”
Ali says her own reasons for learning BSL show its importance as a tool for everyone.
“I was teaching IT and had a deaf student,” she says. “This lady had a support worker but I was quite embarrassed that I couldn’t have any direct conversation with her, even about what sort of weekend she’d had. So I decided to learn BSL.”
Now Ali teaches BSL to pre-schoolers - including babies as young as six months old - at her Little Signers Club classes in Ipswich, Elmswell and Tattingstone. Two of her young students have hearing difficulties but the rest do not. She also has some free sessions coming up in Ipswich on April 6.
“It’s lovely to see all the little ones totally engaged with signing,” she says. “They have a natural instinct for it and they bloom as soon as they realise they’re understood. Signing is such an incredible activity and parents who come along to classes enjoy adding a new skill to their repertoire too. It really has something for everyone and it’s so easy to learn.”
To register interest in Ali’s free signing sessions, arrange a free session at your local baby / toddler group, Children’s Centre or to join a local class, call 07720 349424 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For sessions in Sudbury or Bury St Edmunds email email@example.com or call 07584 290560.