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How do hearing people learn BSL as a foreign language?

Professor Gary Morgan investigating how hearing adults learn to sign and whether it differs to learning a spoken second language

by George Wigmore (Senior Communications Officer)

Academics at City University London are working with colleagues across Europe to find out more about how hearing adults learn to sign and whether it differs to learning a spoken second language.

While British Sign Language (BSL) is the first language of Deaf people in the UK, we currently know relatively little about how hearing adults learn to sign.

Comprised of researchers in London, Hamburg, Lund, Amsterdam and Barcelona, the new international network - which is funded by The Leverhulme Trust - aims to bring together a specific group of researchers to help shape a future research programme and also develop new methods and research models to investigate this topic further. The team also plan to organise a final conference for teachers and learners of BSL as well as mainstream second language researchers.

Speaking about the study, Gary Morgan, a Professor of Psychology in the School of Health Sciences at City University London, said: “The aim of this International Network is to begin to fill this gap and by bringing together colleagues across Europe we can bring great theoretical and practical value to the research area. As a result, we will set out to discover more about this interesting topic both in order to advance understanding of second language research as well as provide valuable information for teachers of BSL.”

There has been an enormous increase in the numbers of hearing people learning BSL in recent years, and in 2009 there were an estimated 190,000 hearing adults who had learned at least basic level BSL, with many of them learning BSL as a second language for a hobby or personal and professional reasons.

“Research on sign language learning can impact greatly on current models and theories of how people learn a second language, and because BSL is not based on sounds it is difficult to see how learners’ first language would influence their understanding of signs,” says Professor Morgan. “For example what does a foreign accent look like in a sign language or how do leaners’ use of gestures influence their learning of BSL?”

In 2013, Professor Morgan also led a symposium on sign language learning at the European Second Language Acquisition Conference (EUROSLA). This was the first time the conference had included sign language learning in hearing adults. As a result there is a pressing need for sign language investigators to interact more with spoken language second language researchers.

“In this network we aim to both increase the synergy across sign language teams as well as get spoken and sign language researchers together to work on second language acquisition for the first time,” he said.

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