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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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To the Lexicon and Beyond: Sociolinguistics in European Deaf Communities

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What does this mean when applied to Deaf people in Britain?5 When BSL first began to be identified in scholarly terms as a language in the 1970s, the language abilities that were seen as having value (in economic terms) for Deaf people were English, spoken and written, and English-influenced signed varieties. The 1980s and 1990s have seen a broad, strong shift here. BSL has now been named and taught and has a relatively high public profile with an infrastructure.6 In other words, it has been industrialized and now carries an economic status of its own. Deaf people have a range of “socially accepted” linguistic potentialities, therefore, which they may (or may not) operationalize within daily life.


How do young adult BSL users feel about the language and the communication choices they make? The ontological position taken here led to qualitative interviewing as an appropriate way to explore the views and understandings that are meaningful properties of the social reality in focus. The interviews reported here indeed provide some revealing perspectives with an apparent ideological commonality, centering on the interviewees’ evident matter-of-fact readiness to make pragmatic accommodations to external linguistic circumstances. The data reported are drawn from fieldwork conducted in Britain under my supervision by Deaf researchers Jen Dodds and Helen Phillips.7 The interviewees are all between 20 and 29 years of age. They come, in terms of language influences, from a full range of school and family backgrounds and describe themselves variously—using terminology of their own choosing, which is not a part of the material analyzed here—in terms of linguistic identities.8

Interviewees were recruited by the two Deaf researchers, both U.K.-educated and in their twenties. Information was disseminated using the researchers’ own extensive social networks as community members to identify interviewees on a friend-of-a-friend basis. To widen the “catchment” population, interviewees were also identified following recruitment via the British Deaf News (national magazine); BBC Read Hear teletext pages; local Deaf organizations’ magazines; Deaf clubs; local mainstream newspapers, libraries, and Citizens Advice Bureaus; websites of voluntary organizations and independent Deaf groups; website bulletin boards for young deaf people; and the widely accessed, independent Deaf-U.K. e-group. Thus the sample encapsulates a relevant range of people, with a functional balance between generating a degree of intersubjective understanding among participants and maintaining a degree of social distance. Qualitative interviewing is acknowledged as involving the construction or reconstruction of knowledge more than the “excavation” of it (Mason 2002; Kvale 1996). The sampling can be seen throughout as purposive (in the sense of Robson 1993), and the conclusions should be read with due caution in this respect.

Forty-three face-to-face, semistructured, videotaped interviews took place, allowing people to answer more on their own terms than the standardized interview permits but still providing a greater structure for comparability than that of the focused interview (see May 2001). The interviews took place in contexts of the interviewees’ choosing in order to maximize their comfort. In conducting the interviews, both researchers (who self-identify as BSL users) signed directly to the interviewees and sought to adjust their mode of communication as necessary to ensure the interviewees had full access and were using the language they felt most comfortable with. Interviews were transcribed into English in full by the researchers, supported where needed by qualified British Sign Language/English interpreters. Final decisions on the transcripts were made by the Deaf researchers. Interviewees were assured that their identities would not be revealed to anyone outside of the research workers.

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