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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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The interviewees’ often identified the linguistic identity or capability of their interlocutor as the main factor in deciding their approach to communication (see Le Page and Tabouret-Keller 1985; Edwards 1985). One interviewee describes this as an “automatic,” rather than deliberate, process:

It depends on the people. If the person is a strong BSL user, I would use BSL with them! (female, twenty-one, BSL)

It depends. . . . With hearing people who can sign, I will use signing—for example, interpreters or people learning to sign, because if they can sign, why not use it?! (male, twenty-four, BSL)

Depends on each person. . . . If the person knows sign language, I would use it. . . . I feel it depends on the person and which to use comes automatically. (female, twenty-one, BSL)

For some interviewees, the familiarity of the interlocutor plays a major part in defining lines of communication:

I have got hearing friends who know me well, and I don’t need to use sign language as they know me very well and I can talk to them. (female, twenty-two, speak)

Some said that they at least initially use speech when they meet hearing people, explicitly reporting this as an accommodation to hearing people’s needs:

I choose oral language because hearing people can understand it, and it is easier when you speak it. (male, twenty-three, oral most of the time)

I would use speech to hearing because if I used sign and speech they will say “what are you doing?” And they don’t like it. . . . Some hearing people are like that. . . . They don’t want to embarrass themselves. It’s their way. I don’t know why they do it. (male, twenty-four, with hearing oral, with Deaf signing)

On the other hand, there is also evidence that making such adjustments in the presence of hearing people is not felt to be in any sense a matter of obligation despite the fact that, from other evidence, it is clearly accepted as an available option:

Why should I use speech?! For hearing people? If I want to use BSL, and other Deaf people want to use BSL, why should I do it for them? It is my right. . . . If they don’t feel comfortable, well, it is tough, it’s their problem. This is public, and I can do what I want! (female, twenty-one, BSL)

Many interviewees drew distinctions between situations in which they would consider BSL to be appropriate and those where they would opt for more distinctly English-influenced “contact” signing (see Lucas and Valli 1992; Turner 1995):

With hearing people, it would depend. . . . Some hearing people are not good at signing, and I would use SSE and at the same time use my voice. (female, twenty-nine, BSL)

Really, I have two languages, BSL and SSE. When I meet hearing people who know a little sign, I have to use SSE. When I meet Deaf people, I use BSL. (male, twenty-two, BSL)

Well, my sign language is based on SSE but sometimes BSL. Sometimes I feel that SSE is more important because of the real world out there. (female, twenty-two, speak)

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