University of Edinburgh

Empower '97: International Conference on Deaf Education

Paper 4: See what I mean? Exploiting BSL visual encoding in teaching and learning

Dr Mary Brennan
Co-Director, Deaf Studies Research Unit, University of Durham

This account focuses on the way in which British Sign Language (BSL) encodes visual information and how this characteristic can be exploited positively in the teaching and learning of deaf children.

The account makes use of insights and information gleaned both from formal research and from discussions and interactions over many years with deaf people themselves. I have learned much about the richness of British Sign Language from colleagues at the Deaf Studies Research Unit in Durham and, before that, from those involved in research and teaching at Moray House College. This paper takes account of some recent re-analyses I have undertaken of data collected during the period of the Edinburgh BSL Research Project (Brennan and Colville, 1984; Brennan et al, 1984).

The discussion will also take into account collaborative work relating to the development of critical thinking skills in young deaf children and issues which have arisen from our work on the translation of children's books and related teaching materials. Many of these issues revolve around notions of visual encoding.

Visual Encoding in British Sign Language

I wish to claim that BSL does not just exploit visuality, it also enables us to 'see' the meaning that is being expressed through visual imagery, particularly metaphor. Once we tune into this way of seeing reality, a host of new understandings is available to us. The same is true for the child. If we can allow, even encourage, the child to recognise, explore and exploit this visuality then, I would suggest, we can open up areas of abstract reasoning that have too often been closed to deaf children.

The visual encoding of signed language lies at the heart of controversies relating to the use or non-use of signed language within the education of deaf children. Indeed, what I wish to promote as a positive advantage for learning has more typically been denounced as a characteristic which makes signed language an unsuitable vehicle for the education of deaf children.

Linguistic Darwinism

Historically, the perceived iconicity of sign languages has generally been viewed as a negative characteristic by non-deaf observers. Such an attitude can be seen in the discussions revolving around the view that gestural communication was a precursor to speech. These discussions, even while stressing the importance of gesture, often employ language which itself reveals a dismissive attitude:"Human communication once consisted of an inferior system of ... tone, gesture and grimace ... through the process of natural selection and survival of the fittest the voice has gained the upper hand."

William Dwight Whitney, 1879, p291 Notice Whitney's use of the terms "grimace" and "inferior". The former in particular has connotations of primitiveness and lack of humanity. This can be seen even more clearly in the following observation:

"... savage and half-civilized races accompany their talk with expressive pantomime much more than nations of a higher culture."
Tylor, EB, 1874 Again and again in these discussions, such terms as "primitive", "savage", "inferior" and "uncivilized" are used in conjunction with comments on the pictorial or pantomimic nature of gesture. Interestingly, accounts of the sign languages used by non-deaf people, particularly North American Indian tribes and the Aboriginal peoples of Australia contain very similar observations. Even while admiring the ingenuity, effectiveness and expressiveness of such languages, observers almost inevitably linked them with "lack of civilisation":

"It is in the signs that metaphorically express the Indian ideas of what to us are common ideas that the poetry of the savage nature shines forth."

Wassell, WH 1896 in quoted in Umiker-Sebeok and Sebeok, 1978, p 40

"A conversation in the sign language has been likened to a series of moving pictures, and as the relations between object's actions in such a picture are represented by the relative positions and sequence, and are evident to the eye, so also are those expressed in the sign picture when viewed by a person trained to see with the eye of the natural man; for this sequence is not that in which the English-speaking person arranges his expression for thought, but is analogous to that used by the deaf mute....The grammatical part of the sign language is the portion least understood by the white man, partly because of the inverted order of sequence, so opposed to the genius of the English tongue..."

Scott, HL 1898 quoted in Umiker-Sebeok and Sebeok, 1978, pp 64-66 Such comments often reveal remarkable insights into the complexity and richness of these visual-gestural languages, yet the observers could often not throw off the automatic assumption of the superiority of the 'white man's speech'.

There is no doubt that echoes of 19th century linguistic Darwinism are still with us today, although they were particularly strong earlier this century. They can be seen in the writings and policies of the Ewings of Manchester University and, for example, in the work of Van Uden. In his well-known 1970 book on oral methodology, Van Uden draws attention to what he perceives to be the negative effects of these "depicting" languages:

"The bad consequences of such a learned sign language will be that these sign making children are educated directly for the deaf community or ghetto ... apart from the dishumanising influence of the signs themselves, because a sign language is much too much a depicting language, keeping the thinking slow, much too concrete, and too broken in pieces."

Van Uden, 1970, p 103 I would wish to argue with Van Uden on his dismissal of sign languages and his claim that they are dishumanising. Nevertheless it does seem that he is at least partially right in describing sign languages as "depicting" languages. However, rather than viewing this as a negative characteristic, I would wish to stress both its importance and its advantages with regard to teaching and learning. Moreover, the depiction involved is not necessarily obvious to the non-signer, given that it is constrained by the linguistic patterning involved.

The positive impact of the visuality of signing was expressed and recognised more than two hundred years ago:

"This language is a kind of painting that puts objects before our very eyes, so to speak, by means of gestures, attitudes, different postures, bodily movements and actions."

Court de Gebelin, M., 1774 quoted by Pierre Desloges, in turn quoted in Lane, 1984 Pierre Desloges, who was himself deaf, recognised the richness of the iconicity inherent in signed language. For him it was a positive, not negative characteristic of the sign language that he himself exploited.

The above quotations reveal the tensions between the traditional conceptualisation of language and the general expectations in relation to gesture. We expect language to be arbitrary; we expect gesture to be transparent and meaningful. When these two systems come together in a gestural language, our expectations are contradictory.

I would suggest that even in recent decades, when we have learnt so much more about how sign languages work, we have tended to play down the iconicity and visual encoding within language. Both educationalists and linguists have been rather embarrassed about it. We have become so determined to find the structure of a conventional linguistic system, that we have ignored the visual reality before our very eyes.

Iconicity and Visual Encoding

Both deaf and hearing then appear to have an expectation of arbitrariness in relation to spoken languages, and of iconicity in relation to sign languages. If I turn on the radio and someone is speaking a language I do not know, I have no expectation that if I sit there listening for half an hour I will understand what is being communicated. However, if I turn on the television and someone is signing a sign language I do not know, I will probably make some attempt to understand. Both hearing and deaf people expect there to be some relationship between what a sign looks like and what it means. When deaf people meet others from different countries using different sign languages, not only can they adapt their own signing so that communication is possible, but they are also interested in knowing why specific signs are structured in particular ways.

Unfortunately, many linguistic accounts have shied away from the iconicity which is inherent in sign languages. Even where it has been recognised, it has often been explained away as a superficial, 'surface-structure' phenomenon, which is relatively unimportant. Sign linguists, including myself, have been keen to stress that signed language shares the fundamental properties of all human language. While this is not in dispute, it may be that in making this argument we have been to ready to ignore the inherently motivated patterning of signed language.

It may be useful at this point to disentangle some of the terms being used here: so far in this account, I have tended to use the terms "iconicity", "motivated" and "visual encoding" rather vaguely and somewhat interchangeably. The claim that is being made here is that the relationship between the form of a sign and what it means is not arbitrary: there is some reason for it. The general term suggested by de Saussure for this non-arbitrary relationship is "motivated". This is a fairly neutral, but helpful term. It allows us to recognise that there may be not one but several different types of relationship between the form of a sign and what it means. The term "iconicity" is also often used in the literature, particularly the sign language literature to refer to a non-arbitrary relationship between form and meaning. However, when we examine accounts of iconicity and iconic signs more carefully, we can see that several types of relationship are typically covered by the term. The first relationship is that of resemblance: the form of a sign in some way resembles the size and shape of an object or the form of an action; different types of relationship between the form of a sign and what it means. The BSL signs "elephant" and "cycle" express such a relationship of resemblance. The relationship may be one of interaction: the form of the sign indicates how we interact with real-world objects. Thus many sign languages make use of classifiers whose form represents how humans interact with specific elements in the real world, eg how humans get hold of what is represented. Such forms are also often classed as "iconic" within the literature. However, there is another group of signs which I would suggest are "motivated", but which are often ignored in accounts of iconicity. These are what I call "metaphoric" signs in BSL. Thus just as the meanings "high" and "low" status are expressed in English through the use of spatial terms, so these same notions are expressed in BSL by the relative location of the hands in space. It is interesting that it is actually quite difficult for us to discuss notions of status in English without making use of spatial metaphor. In BSL, such spatial metaphor is actually realised spatially. I want to argue that this category has particular importance in relation to supporting children's learning: it is discussed in more detail below.

Motivation is not just a property of the lexical system of BSL, but also of the syntactic system. The most obvious example of this is the use of what is sometimes called spatial grammar. The signer makes use of the area in front of the body to establish participants in the discourse; these locations are referred to in later discourse and verbs, for example, may be directed towards them in order to mark syntactic agreement.

One of the key claims I wish to make in relation to signed language is that its structure is inherently influenced by the visual-gestural modality. Sign languages are as they are in part because of universal principles covering human language, but also because of universal properties of visual-gestural activity. Once we begin to understand more about how human gesture works and how sign languages manipulate such gesture then we begin to see the full potential and creative power of sign languages.

The term "visual encoding" is tied into our understanding of motivation, but it focuses on the way in which signed language tends to include, or encode, visual-spatial information as a matter of course. This is not particularly surprising. When we think about the world around us, we realise that we are surrounded typically by different types of shapes and spatial patterning, we are not necessarily surrounded by meaningful noise. Within the lecture hall where this paper is being presented there are certain sounds: my voice; papers being shuffled; the low whir of the computer; a plane flying overhead. Yet there are literally hundreds of objects in our vicinity which do not emit sound; these same objects have shape and dimensions and can be described in terms of their spatial location, one to the other. But if we look around us we see a myriad of different shapes: the overhead projector, overhead lights; boxes; rows of seats, bags, spectacles. It would be difficult to develop spoken word based on the inherent sounds of objects, if the objects themselves do not emit sounds. Of course we do have onomatopoeic words in English, but they are relatively rare. In contrast, sign languages, which exploit gesture, can incorporate information about the shape and size of objects and their relation one to another quite automatically. In fact, the norm in sign languages is to include - or encode - such information within the very structure of the language. The fact that BSL morphology makes considerable use of size and shape classifiers, that verbs are inflected for agreement by being directed towards specific participants (verb arguments) and that the space in front of the body can be used to establish real or abstract locations of participants all demonstrate that the language itself has evolved to suit the visual world and a visual modality.

As Trevor Johnston has commented:"Although oral-aural language is suited to iconically encoded sounds, the fact that our experience, as a whole, is visual, temporal, and spatial means that a language that has visual and spatial resources for representation has greater means for mapping onto those very visual and spatial qualities."

Johnston, T, 1996, p 65


Work over the last two decades, particularly in the field of cognitive linguistics, has examined the nature and extent of metaphor in our everyday language, as well as in scientific language. Most of us associate metaphor with literary language. We rarely recognise just how much we depend upon metaphor in discussing everyday realities, as well as grappling with such topic areas as science, politics and technology. The work of George Lakoff and associates (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; Lakoff, 1987) has been particularly prominent in drawing attention to the diversity of metaphoric expression in spoken languages. The extent of metaphoric usage in sign languages is also now being taken seriously, although initially there was some scepticism. Linguists on the whole were initially uncomfortable with metaphorical explanations seeing them as 'unscientific'. However, several sign language researchers have now offered metaphorical explanations and accounts and there is a growing recognition that, as in spoken languages, so in sign languages, metaphoric expression is all pervasive (Brennan, 1990a, 1990b, 1992; Wilbur, 1990; Wilcox, 1994).

The initial recognition of metaphor in my own work began with a concern to probe the notion of motivation in BSL more fully. It became clear that many of the discussions which revolved around what was and was not an iconic signs arose because there was a type of motivated relationship which did not fit the typical resemblance paradigm. Even signs with highly abstract meanings appeared to show some link between form and meaning: they were not purely arbitrary.

Metaphor essentially involves one expressing one kind of experience in terms of another: it is useful to think of metaphor in terms of the 'as if' relationship. We may view life 'as if' it were a flowing river, or the mind as if it were a container or time as if it were spatially located, ahead and behind. Lakoff and Jonson go so far as to suggest that :"Most of our fundamental concepts are organised in terms of one or more spatialisation metaphors."

Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, p 17 What I suggested with regard to BSL is that not only can we create different types of metaphor at the lexical level by extending from the literal meaning, but metaphorical relationships are actually built into the morphology of the language. The extension of meaning is perhaps the more familiar type of patterning initially. Thus the sign "hit a person", when produced with repetition and appropriate non-manual features can mean "pressurise"; the sign "stroke a person" when produced with slow repetition and appropriate non-manual features can mean "flatter". BSL like English frequently exploits such extensions of meaning. However, perhaps even more pervasive is the exploitation of units of meaning akin to classifiers which allow for the expression of particular types of metaphoric relationships. I have described these elsewhere as "metaphorical morphemes", although of course we only recognise that they are indeed expressing metaphorical relationships when they have been placed in specific contexts.

Let us look at several metaphor sets in BSL. The physical act of grasping or holding is frequently used in English metaphorically to express meanings linked to understanding:
I did not fully grasp the message;

Have you got hold of the idea? In BSL, exactly the same metaphor is used. However, in this visual-gestural language, the metaphor is expressed directly through the physical action of the hand moving from fully open to fully closed as in a prototypical grasp.

The following BSL signs all make use of this action:

  • always remember
  • keep silence
  • suppress one's feelings

We can literally gloss these signs as:

  • "hold thoughts in one's head"
  • "hold words at one's mouth"
  • "hold feelings in one's chest"

Thus the signs exploit the metaphorical morpheme "grasp" and conventional locations; the head, in BSL and in British culture is associated with thought; the mouth is a major organ of speech and in BSL the chest is conventionally linked with feelings. Thus many signs relating to feelings are made at the chest location, just as many signs relating to thought are made at the head location.

Other such morphemes in BSL includes the "absorb" morpheme, the "emanate" morpheme, the "disappear" morpheme, and the "give up" morpheme. Of course, it is only possible to recognise that the morpheme "hold" is being used metaphorically when it is placed in context. In the examples above, ideas words and feelings are presented as if they were tangible objects that we can actually grasp or get hold of. This way of perceiving of specific concepts is given more direct physical expression by the actual grasping actions of the primary articulators, the hands.

Further metaphor sets in BSL are expressed directly by the relationship of the hands in space and interactions between the hands. These include the following in BSL:

The opposition set of metaphors

The physical location of the two hands held opposite to each other expresses the abstract notion of oppositions in signs such as:

  • argue
  • conflict
  • debate
  • compete

The interaction set of metaphors

The alternating action of the two hands, typically away from and towards the body, expresses the notion of turn taking, particularly within communicative events. This can be seen in such signs as:

  • communicate
  • interact
  • discuss
  • negotiate
  • converse

The transfer set of metaphors

Abstract notions of transfer are expressed by the physical interchanging of the two hands in space as in:

  • substitute
  • replace
  • swap
  • re-allocate

A range of metaphor sets in BSL express notions linked to Lakoff and Johnson's "up and down" sets. They note for example that:

High status is up; low status is down;

More is up; less is down;

Having control or force is up; being subject to control or force is down.

In BSL, many signs conform to these central metaphors, but, as this is a sign language, the expression of the metaphors actually involve the hand moving up or down or being located high or low in the signing space or on the body.

The sign "confidence" is made on the upper part of the chest: if the meaning is "increased confidence" then the hand moves up the chest; if the meaning is "reduced confidence" the hand moves down the chest. Signs such as

  • inflation
  • oppress
  • upper class
  • lower class
  • suppress

all exploit upward or downward movement in a away which conforms to Lakoff's suggestions for English.

In all of these examples, the spatial metaphors are actually expressed visually: they materialise physically before our eyes. Initial use of a new metaphorically-based sign of this type may evoke a response similar to that when we see a new iconically-based sign: we enjoy its appropriateness, as it were. Thus even while much of this usage is unconscious and automatic, we can bring it to the child's attention.

It will be clear that many metaphorically-based signs are linked with abstract meanings. Strict relationships of, for example, resemblance cannot apply if we are dealing with abstract concepts. We know that if the deaf child is given access to a sign language early enough, then the child can develop the full grammar of the language automatically. The child can tune into the motivated relationships in BSL, just as s/he can tune into other parts of the grammar. However, such relationships can also be explicitly highlighted and exploited in teaching and learning.

Rich Cultural Variation

Recent work in the use of metaphor in spoken language has shown that we frequently exploit several different metaphors or the same concept. Our understanding of abstract concepts is essentially metaphorical. It is as if to explore and understand a concept more fully, we apply several different, even contradictory metaphors. It is rather like looking at the same object from several different perspectives. Indeed, BSL provides a whole set of classifiers to allow us to do just that. The activity of walking may be represented in BSL by focusing on the actions of the feet (two flat B hand classifiers), the actions of the arms (two flat B hands with forearms prominent or two clenched fists with forearms prominent), the action of the legs (several different possibilities using the V handshape, with extended middle and index fingers, the bent V handshape or two hands with extended index fingers representing the legs); the whole person (the G classifier, ie index finger extended from closed fist, hand held upright) or the head and upper body (closed fist with forearm perpendicular). It is not the case that any one of these is the only right way of signing the information that someone is walking. Rather the signer chooses a particular physical perspective on one occasion; s/he may change this perspective for effect within a single piece of discourse. The effect is rather like the film director choosing different camera angles and shots: s/he creates different ways of viewing a situation.

In both spoken language and signed language we also take different metaphorical perspectives on abstract meanings. There is not usually a single metaphor applied, although in some cases a specific metaphor may be the predominant one. Often such metaphoric relationships are so much a part of our language and thinking that we are not fully aware that we are exploiting metaphor until it is drawn to our attention, possibly by someone pushing the metaphor beyond its normal limits.

Within BSL we find this same variation and richness. The following set of metaphors are exploited in BSL in relation to thought.

Ideas are viewed as:

  • objects with their own volition
  • objects within a container (part of famous conduit metaphor)
  • objects which can be picked out, held up and examined
  • objects which can be grasped and held onto

Thought is viewed as:

  • lines of thought
  • flowing
  • as a mechanical structure: cogs interacting
  • as elements linking to one another

While as hearing learners we often learn a few simple signs relating to thought and knowledge, if we watch deaf signers we can see that they manipulate a range of ways of signing about thought without even having to think about it. Although, of course, as in spoken English, they may deliberately choose specific signs for effect. These metaphorical links can also be exploited in the creation of new signs. The "lines of thought metaphor", typically exploited by the fully open 5 hand held at the side of the forehead with fingers wriggling, has entered into several new signs. Thought transference involves both the "lines of thought" metaphor and the "spatially realised transfer" metaphor: the hands are held one in front of the other at the side of the head, with one hand held behind the other. The two hands move to and fro alternately while the fingers wriggle. A to and fro movement at head level of the 5 hand with fingers wriggling is used to express the meaning "theorise". One sign meaning "hypothesise" uses the "lines" metaphor followed by the sign "true" made at forehead level with a questioning facial expression. Thus metaphorical elements, morphemes, can enter into compounds in the creation of new signs.

Sign Creation

Within all specialist areas, and within education generally, there is often concern at what is viewed as the lack of specialist vocabulary, especially in the areas of science and technology. What I want to suggest is that if we let the language work fully and let deaf adults and deaf children exploit the language in a range of situations, then we stop focusing on the need for individual technical terms and allow communication to occur. I can demonstrate this from my own subject area, sign linguistics. When we first started to discuss sign linguistic issues with deaf people and when deaf and hearing people began to teach about sign linguistics, there were few technical linguistics terms relating to sign languages, or even spoken languages, available. At certain points individuals attempted to create new signs artificially: for the most part these did not work. Often people were trying to create new signs before really understanding the concepts involved. Now there are signs, signs which seem appropriate and which fit the motivated patterning of much of the BSL lexicon. I cannot pinpoint the birth of most of these signs, but I do know that for the most part they evolved naturally and exploited iconic and metaphorical links. My favourite example is the sign "diglossia". Diglossia is a technical term referring to a language situation in which there are two clearly different varieties of a language which take on different functions within the given society. Classic examples include, formal Arabic and colloquial Arabic, High German and Swiss German. The terms "high" and "low" are often given to the formal and colloquial varieties respectively. During presentations relating to diglossia I was aware of the two varieties being represented by the two hands, one at a higher and one at a lower point in space. The handshape was the bent B, ie the fingers are held together and the hand is bent at the major knuckles. The same handshape is used in other signs relating to status. Then one day I observed students using a sign in which both hands had this bent B handshape but the right hand fingertips contacted the mid part of the left forearm: this was now the sign meaning diglossia. The sign fully exploited the metaphorical possibilities of the language as well as the phonological structure. It worked. There are thousands of such examples. What is important is that we let the deaf child in on these possibilities from as early a stage as possible.

Gesture and Sign

Just as we have been rather nervous about accepting that sign languages typically exploit motivated relationships between form and meaning, we have also been rather nervous about dwelling too much on the gestural nature of sign languages. We know that they have been dismissed in the past because they were 'just' gesture. We can perhaps see this distrust of the very idea of gesture in the way in which deaf tutors rarely exploit the natural gesture used by hearing people. They recognise that this is not linguistic and therefore do not see it as something which can be built upon. In acquisition studies there is much focus on the discontinuity between gestural activity in a child and linguistic activity, even where the linguistic activity is signed activity. While there are indeed arguable bases for these claims, I would suggest that unfortunately, by dismissing gesture, we are failing to see some of the similarities between co-verbal gesture, the gesture that is typically used alongside speech and the gestural patterning that is found in signed language. Even gestural activity that is not accompanied by speech, sometimes known as pantomimic gesture, exhibits some of the same type of patterning. Deaf children without signing may well exploit such patterning, yet we often fail to build upon it.

Recent work on co-verbal gesture by David McNeill suggests that gesture plays an important part in everyday communication:"Typical communication is a combination of word and image: the word is supplied by the linguistic, spoken system, the image by the gesture."
McNeill, 1992

Again and again in his account, McNeill places emphasis on the role of gesture in creating images:

"A spoken text, through its gestures, makes the imagery of discourse explicit."

"Metaphoric signs (gestures) create images of abstractions."
McNeill, 1992, p 145

It is not surprising to learn that in his categorisation of co-verbal gestures, McNeill includes two key categories: what he calls "iconics" and "metaphorics". Even when we speak, and apparently the spoken language itself is fully capable of expressing our meaning, we as it were simultaneously offer to the person we interact with images of what we mean. Our hands move up in space to express superiority; our hands become cars when we describe an accident; we place sets of ideas in space as if they were in containers that could be located and so on. McNeill's account provides a host of real examples from co-verbal gesture.

McNeill wishes to stress the importance of word and image: the unity of the whole message; the incompleteness of one without the other. The word is in a sense bound by the constraints of the linguistic system, phonological, morphological and syntactic patterning. The gestural image is imbued with motivated potential, but has a fluidity of form. The one complements the other. What I have suggested is that:

"A sign, a word of BSL, is both a set of conventionalised components - handshapes, movements, locations, non-manual features - and the vehicle for expressing an image."
Brennan, 1997

So uniquely sign languages conjoin word and image in a single system. Deaf people both understand the world through such imagery and create new ways of understanding through their exploitation of this rich and unified linguistic system.

When we explore these forms in more detail, we realise also that deaf people are able to encode cultural information into their signing by use of appropriate images. The following examples come from the BSL CD-ROM Dictionary of Deaf Community and Culture (Brien et al, 1997). These three signs all refer to people who can move between two worlds, the deaf and the hearing. Note that when we express this meaning in English we make use of a spatial-action verb, move between. The actual concept does not necessarily involve physical movement, but we express it through the notion of physically going from one world into the other. We understand one type of experience in terms of another: we speak and think metaphorically.

The three signs here use several different images:

The first sign might most appropriately be translated as "straddling two worlds". The sign uses the G hand classifier on the non-dominant hand and the V (legs) classifier on the dominant hand. The V hand is placed on top of the G so that the index finger is held between the middle and index fingers of the dominant hand. Indeed this is virtually identical to signs expressing such meanings as sit on a horse or sit on a bike. The dominant hand then moves from side to side.

The next two signs are almost identical in form, except for the use of non-manual features. They both use the non-dominant hand held as a G hand, ie index finger raised from a closed fist, held in an upright position. The dominant hand makes use of the bent V handshape, a handshape typically used in signs relating to human physical movement. The dominant hand is held behind the non-dominant and makes repeated movements right and left. In the sign translated as "moving easily between two worlds", the signer uses the non-manual features in which the lips are pushed forward and the head is slightly tilted. The non-manual features express the meaning "with ease". In the sign translated as "exploiting both worlds", the signer uses the same manual components, but with a more active bending at the wrist of the dominant hand. The non-manual features involve a slight tongue protrusion and nose-wrinkling, associated with negative or derogatory meanings. In explaining the meaning in the definition on the CD-ROM, the signer uses signs meaning "ripping off" or "taking what they can" from each world.

These signs are perfect examples of the notion that in signing we conjoin word and image. They fully conform to the phonological (sometimes called cherological) structuring of the language. However, they also express a clear image to which we can respond. The impact of such imagery can be seen very clearly in the sign which can be translated as "hypocritically big D Deaf". The distinction between the use of a lower case 'd' in the word 'deaf' and the upper case 'D' in 'Deaf' has been used in the literature to express the distinction between people who have a hearing loss, and are therefore deaf, but who do not see themselves and are not seen as belonging to a distinctive minority sign language using community. Deaf people on the other hand see themselves as constituting a particular linguistic community with its own culture. This written convention has been in turn conventionalised in the Deaf Community by the use of different productions of the fingerspelled letter 'd': lower case 'd' has the dominant hand making a small circle at the base of the dominant extended finger; upper case 'D' makes use of the traditional fingerspelled 'd' with the dominant hand held so that the tip of the thumb touches the base of the non-dominant index finger and the tip of the dominant index finger touches the tip of the non-dominant index finger. The sign focused on here uses the upper case version, but then, retaining the contact between the two hands bends the hands so that the tips of the fingers are oriented downwards and then the hands swing from side to side. At the same time the signer produces the derogatory non-manual features of tongue protrusion and nose wrinkling. The downward action expresses the "down is negative" metaphor, while the side to side swinging movement expresses the "oscillation is indecision" metaphor. The whole combination is one which typically provokes a humorous response because the image fits the intended meaning so well. Interestingly, I understand from my colleague Maureen Reed that a similar sign is used to mean 'lapsed Catholic'. This sign makes use of the finger-spelled letters 'r-c' (ie the abbreviation for Roman Catholic'), but instead of the 'c' being produced in a single forward motion, away from the signer, the dominant hand bends downwards and swings from side to side. The same non-manual features are used. In all of these examples, we have a conjoining of word and image. Indeed so strong are the images, that our English translations often fail to do them justice.

Visual Encoding and Teaching and Learning

Visual encoding in signed language involves both the encoding of real world physical information in the form of the signing and the encoding of abstract concepts through visuo-spatial metaphor. One of the ongoing problems in relation to the education of deaf children and students is that all too often abstract concepts and theories are seen as somehow too complex for them to cope with. Even teachers who wish to explore, for example, scientific theories in depth, often baulk at the demands of communication. However, we need to distinguish between our own communication limitations and the communicative potential of the child. Moreover, instead of always worrying about the lack of a direct and straightforward match between English and BSL patterning, we should let the child in on the differences.

It is only possible here to give a hint of what could be involved, but I would like to do so by focusing on some work which the Deaf Studies Research Unit has recently undertaken in conjunction with the Sensory Centre at Moray House Institute of Education in Edinburgh and Learning to Learn in Georgetown, Ontario, Canada. This work has revolved around the development of critical thinking skills in children and students. Margaret Ward of Learning to Learn has been involved in developing tasks relating to critical thinking in relation to books from the Oxford Reading Scheme. Judith Collins of the DSRU has been working on translations of the stories for internal use.

Here I focus on two types of issue and potential. The first relates to translation issues which have arisen in relation to the stories; the second concerns the metaphorical potential of the language in relation to the expression of different types of critical thinking activities.

Translation Issues

Judith Collins and members of the DSRU have worked on translations of some of the stories from the Oxford Reading Scheme as well as other children's stories, including Nothing by Mick Inkpen. At this stage, our efforts are geared to exploring the types of issues which arise, but we may seek permission to make available public translated versions of this material.

The first issue which is raised as soon as one looks at this material is the relationship between the written texts and the illustrations. Reading for meaning involves taking account of contextual information; such contextual information may be provided by text alone, or by text and illustrations. It may also be informed by wider knowledge, for example what is known from books in the same series and from broader general knowledge.

However, we may at times live with a degree of ambiguity or uncertainty about what is intended and, in some cases at least, that uncertainty may be intentional.

The following examples are taken from The Dolphin Pool (Hunt and Brychta, 1986). However, almost any children's story will reveal many of the same issues. This story is at Stage Three of the Oxford Reading Scheme. Typically, each single page has a large illustration accompanied by a simple sentence, except for the last page where there is some very simple dialogue,'Oh, no!' said Wilf.

'Oh no!' said Wilma All of the sentences are simple declarative sentences made up of a simple clause. There are two characters named in this particular story: Wilf and Wilma. Other participants named are dolphins, a killer-whale and fish. However, there is an additional human participant who appears in the illustrations. In fact, this male character appears in 5 out of 7 double page spreads. From his attire, the fact that he has a whistle around his neck, the fact that he carries a bucket of fish, that he is shown throwing fish to the animals and his general interaction with Wilf and Wilma and interaction with the animals, we can assume that he is a keeper. Despite the regular presence of this character within the illustrative storyline, he never appears in the text storyline. Yet the deaf child exploiting visual encoding may well see fit to mention this character when reading the story. Page 8 and 9 is a double spread. The illustration shows the keeper with whistle in his mouth looking out towards the pool and the killer-whale. Beside him is the bucket of fish and the two children, Wilf and Wilma, also looking out towards the pool. The text on page 8 reads, "They looked at the killer-whale." In BSL, there is not just a simple distinction between "one" and "more than one" in pronominal forms: the signer may use a handshape indicating 1, 2, 3 ,4 or several people. The English text could simply mean Wilf and Wilma, but the illustration shows the three characters. The fact that a choice has to be made pinpoints differences between English and BSL.

On Page 2, the illustration shows the keeper bending over pool with a whistle in his mouth. The two children are also watching; Wilf is holding a ball. Two dolphins are shown in the pool: a ball is balanced on the mouth of one of these. The text reads:

" The dolphins played with the ball"

When Judith Collins signs this, she makes use of both a neutral sign "play" and a combination of classifier forms which demonstrate in a fully visual way, but in a way that conforms to the morphological patterning of BSL, how the dolphins balance the ball on their noses and pass it to each other. This passing is not actually shown or mentioned, but Judith is exploiting her knowledge of what normally happens.

Similarly, on Page 5, the text simply reads:

" A dolphin jumped through the hoop."

but Judith signs this in such a way that we know that Wilma is holding the hoop. She also provides an image of the jumping which is in a sense stronger than that covered by the word "jump" in English: the curving action shown in the illustration is echoed in her signing. On pages 11 and 12 the text reads:

"The killer-whale jumped up."

"It took the fish."

The fish is being tossed to the killer-whale by the keeper who stands on the top of steps overhanging the pool. The natural tendency for the signer is also to incorporate such visual information in order to make the language visually meaningful. Thus even in a simple story, there are visual elements which would be naturally encoded into BSL.

In the book Midge in Hospital from the same series, we can note the following text on p 6 :

" A doctor looked at Midge's foot."

Without seeing any picture, we would probably expect that the doctor is leaning over examining Midge's actual foot. When we look at the picture we see someone with a stethoscope and a white coat looking at an x-ray of a foot. This is a completely different visual reality and Judith signs it accordingly. We know from Judith's signing that it is an x-ray and not the actual physical foot that is being looked at. Also she directs the sign look straight ahead, towards the imaginary x-ray screen rather than downwards. This exploitation of visual encoding in BSL allows the child to express different types of meaning more fully, while recognising differences between BSL and English. Reading is not just a question of syntax; it involves understanding context and predicting appropriately. The child who embeds visual meaning within signed versions of books is demonstrating linguistic creativity. The child is getting a chance both to take in meaning from English and from illustrative material and to exploit the linguistic creativity s/he can develop in her/his own language. As Gordon Wells suggests, quoting Andrew Locke, the child re-invents language.

The book Nothing by Mick Inkpen is much more demanding in terms of the amount and complexity of the written language than the texts quoted above. However, the illustrations, even where they appear relatively simple, are a major part of the book. They typically take up one full page of a double page spread, and often additional smaller illustrations accompany the text. It is impossible here to provide a full account of the visual richness of Judith's translation of this book. It is worth saying here, that we should not assume that a translation is easily accomplished, even for a highly fluent user of BSL. A translation has to be worked on. Having said this, the child re-presenting the book in BSL can be encouraged to recognise that there are different ways of re-presenting the textual and illustrative material in sign.

In order to give a flavour of the text and to discuss some of the issues around visual encoding, it is worth quoting a chunk of text. The following text is shown on page 8 (the pages are actually un-numbered): the facing page shows a close up of the upper part of a fox looking down on bear, Nothing who is lying with his head raised as if just looking up after his fall. Behind the fox is a starry sky, an outline of trees and at the side in the foreground the bin and some rubbish. The text is as follows:

Nothing rolled into the garden and sat up.

"What on earth are you?" said a silky voice. The fox, for that is what it was, left the dustbin and trotted towards him.

"I'm Nothing," said Nothing.

The fox sniffed at him. Its whiskers quivered. Its ears pricked.

"I used to have ears and whiskers!" thought Nothing suddenly. He was sure of it.

The fox spoke again. "Nothing," it said disdainfully. "Nothing worth eating, that's for sure." It trotted away silently.

In her signing, Judith makes considerable use of change in perspective. The sniffing of the fox is viewed from the outside, and then from Nothing's perspective. Role-shift is used to show the turn-taking in the dialogue and non-manual features, including both facial expression and body movement, as well as modifications to the manual signs to express such adverbial and adjectival meanings as "disdainfully" and "silky". While at one level, Judith is simply exploiting the resources of BSL to express the meanings concerned, what the watcher receives is a very rich visual picture of the meaning expressed. The same is true in relation to the next section on page 8. Here the picture shows Nothing leaning over the lily pond, with his image just disappearing in the ripples.

Nothing wandered into the garden and came across a lily pond. There a frog sat gently croaking. As Nothing approached it plopped into the water, and with a kick of its stripey legs it disappeared from view.

"I used to have stripes!" thought Nothing. "I'm sure I did!"

The ripples cleared and Nothing found himself staring at his own reflection. It was odd. It was ugly.

"What are you?" it said to Nothing sadly. A tear rolled up its face and splashed onto the surface of the pond. The ugly face disappeared among the ripples.

"What are you?" repeated Nothing.
Nothing p8

While the signing is fluent and highly appropriate, this section makes considerable demands on the translator. The syntactic patterning is quite different in each of the languages. BSL for example typically does not exploit adjectival clauses of the type "stripey legs"; the BSL translation has to make use of a topic-comment structure. However, the signer is also able to exploit classifiers and simultaneity within BSL to show for example Nothing's own image in the pool. The dominant A hand (closed fist) classifier represents Nothing himself, while the non-dominant A hand classifier held below the other represents Nothing's image in the pool. Again when we watch the signing, the imagery is presented before our eyes.

There is little doubt that deaf children can both respond to and exploit such imagery if given the chance. However, we have to let them take risks, try things out, be creative in their own language, even when it does not quite work. We also need to try to make more and more of such rich BSL available to them as a matter of course, and not just on rare occasions. The path to English literacy can most effectively traverse BSL imagery.

Visual Encoding and Critical Thinking

The work on translations has gone alongside work on developing questions and tasks for critical thinking. The material developed by Margaret Ward is based on Bloom's taxonomy of thinking (Ward, 1997). The levels of thinking are categorised in terms of:

  • Knowledge
  • Comprehension
  • Application
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation

Knowledge being the most basic level, the claim is that such critical thinking can be encouraged from an early age: we do not have to wait until the child reaches secondary level. We also know that many deaf children do not appear to have full opportunities to develop higher level thinking skills. Even deaf students attending FE and HE courses appear to have considerable difficulty in these areas.

One of the ways in which Bloom's taxonomy can be integrated into the curriculum is by the teacher and child becoming aware of specific sets of verbs or processes associated with each level (Ward, 1987). While an initial look at these verbs might cause anxiety - how will deaf children ever cope with these? - a closer look at their BSL equivalents reveals the motivated basis of many of the verb forms. These forms make use of iconic or metaphorical links between form and meaning which are or can be already familiar to the child, if s/he has been exposed to BSL usage. To put it bluntly, these signs give visual clues to their meaning. Sometimes within education, we seem to be concerned about giving the child clues. I would suggest that we take the opposite approach: let the child make the most of the visual clues which may be inherent in the language. There is plenty still to do once the child has understood what is involved in identifying, classifying, comparing, predicting and so on.

The translations of the verb forms by Maureen Reed and Judith Collins show how we can facilitate the child in exploiting these processes. Even the first level 'Knowledge' makes use of such verb forms as "record", "list", "define", "label". The child can show different types of recording: in a book; on a blackboard; in signed form on video. There are obvious iconic ways of signing such distinctions. It is also possible to show relationships between different types of process. They analyse by classifying items into different groups. These groups can be given different spatial locations. They can then be labelled or named, with the sign being directed towards the appropriate group. As a new item is discovered, it can be identified and placed within the group. All of these processes involve the child in exploiting spatial patterning and establishing and maintaining spatial relationships. Meanings such as "arrange", "organise", "assemble", "construct" will be signed differently according to the type of components which are being arranged, organised etc. The child can tune into the metaphorical bases of many of these signs. Comparing may not simply use the frozen form compare, which makes use of two B hands in neutral space, but can be modified according to what is being compared and where they have been established in space. All of these process verbs appear to have motivated rather than arbitrary forms. They can provide a hook on which to hang further understandings. Seeing these meanings in BSL involves seeing images or metaphors of what is being expressed. Rather than simply having to cope with technical, 'difficult' language, the child/student is dealing with types of patterning which s/he can clue into very easily. But we have to have the nerve to let the student take the risk - even if s/he gets it wrong initially.


In this account, I have tried to give some hint of the extraordinary visual potential of signed language in general and British Sign Language in particular. It is of course rather difficult to do this in text format, without the visual support of real examples. Nevertheless, the examples cited should provide an indication that BSL has resources which are currently under-used, probably at all levels of education. The visual possibilities of BSL can allow the child to enter into imaginative and abstract realms, as well as enabling the child to deal with factual material. These visual resources can assist the child in evaluating ideas and theories, rather than only being focused on knowledge and facts. The visuality of BSL can enable the child to have access to different ways of perceiving the world and of understanding abstract concepts. The more we ourselves as educators learn to understand and exploit this visuality, the more we can provide the student with a range of approaches to learning. However, it is also worth remembering that even if we remain relatively poor at the practical exploitation of such visuality, given the chance the deaf child can seize the opportunity and move beyond our own limitations.

References and Bibliography

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Brennan, M (1994) Pragmatics and Productivity; in: Ahlgren, I, Bergman, B & Brennan, M (eds) Perspectives on Sign Language Usage: Papers from the Fifth International Symposium on Sign Language Research, Vol 2; Durham: International Sign Linguistics Association
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