UCLan staff members from British Sign Language & Deaf Studies (BSL&DS), along with Professor Ulrike Zeshan from the International Institute for Sign Language and Deaf Studies (iSLanDS), made an international trip to China from 2 – 12 September 2018.
There were six people altogether, including two sign language interpreters, and the trip was a great success. British Council’s UK-China Partnership Innovation Challenge Fund sponsored this Deaf Studies academic exchange and British Council Representative, Mavis Meng, kindly came to meet our team and discussed project progress with the Project Leader, Dr Junhui Yang, at a workshop held in Beijing.
This trip came about as a result of a UK-China partnership between UCLan and Zhengzhou Institute for Technology (ZIT). The vice president of ZIT, Professor Gan Yong, formally invited us to visit Beijing and Zhengzhou in China; and Professor Meng Fanling, Dean of Special Education College at ZIT, worked hard to organise many project activities and events. The basic purpose of the project was to organise an academic exchange during which academics from UCLan and the China institutions could share experiences related to teaching sign language, related to teaching English to deaf and hard of hearing learners, and to develop a sign language based online English learning platform.
During our time in China, we visited two schools for deaf pupils, and ZIT’s Special Education College, where over 700 deaf youths and 200 sign language interpreting students are currently studying.
We also had the opportunity to meet many members of the local deaf community through workshops that were held in Beijing, Zhengzhou and Kaifeng. The visit to the school in Beijing was particularly beneficial, as we were able to watch Chinese Sign Language and English being taught to its many deaf and hard of hearing pupils. We were also invited to celebrate National Teachers’ Day with the Special School for Deaf and Blind students in Kaifeng, where we observed dance performances and the school’s historical display. Later on in the trip, a two-day Deaf Studies and English Teaching Symposium, organised by the project team in Zhengzhou, attracted a good number of teachers, researchers and deaf people from across this large province. The symposium was very successful. One of the main impacts on the UK academic visitors and the Chinese participants was how quickly deaf people can communicate in a sign language that is completely different to their own. The visuality contained within sign languages made learning some basic aspects of the foreign sign language quite effortless, highlighting the beauty of sign languages and the fact that deaf people have the capacity to learn and develop knowledge and skills. The talk given at the symposium also highlighted the ability of deaf people to learn English, especially when they are taught through visual learning methods, such as using pictures alongside English words.
The trip to China made by the UCLan academics was preceded by an initial trip to the UK made by several of our Chinese academic partners. After visiting the UK, the visitors returned to China and began to establish an online learning course, on the Chinese MOOC platform, for deaf university teachers at ZIT to teach sign language with applied sign linguistic context and this has been effective.
As part of the information-sharing element of the trip, Dr Nicola Nunn led several interesting sessions on learning how to use placement, a central grammatical feature of many sign languages. The same lesson was taught to teachers and members of the deaf community in Beijing, to enthusiastic university students in Zhengzhou, and to students learning Chinese Sign Language interpreting skills in Zhengzhou. The sessions were very well received and motivated the attendees to ask many questions related to learning sign language. Another senior lecturer, Mark Heaton, who began teaching BSL at UCLan 25 years ago, demonstrated BSL conversation skills to several groups during the trip. Mark’s clear expression and natural flow of signing made him very approachable and many Chinese deaf people were excited to communicate with him directly. At the symposium in Zhengzhou, Professor Zeshan led an effective workshop related to deaf multiliteracies and the benefits of learning English through sign language. The workshops highlighted the notion that deaf and hearing people learn in different ways due to the differences in cognition, with deaf people preferring more demonstration activities and more detailed explanations.
One of the most interesting and informative aspects of this academic exchange project has been the developing understanding that the most effective method for teaching English to deaf and hard of hearing learners is through sign language, or other visual teaching methods. For many years, there has been a common belief that hearing people should teach English to deaf learners, and that they should make full use of spoken Chinese (in the case of China) in order to demonstrate aspects of spoken and written English. This project has repeatedly highlighted the fact that moving away from the use of Chinese, and teaching English through sign language, is more accessible and more effective for deaf learners. This direct method of teaching, where sign language users are taught through their native language, is one of the most successful and advantageous teaching and learning methods available. Many of the symposium presenters also demonstrated how teaching through sign language is beneficial when accompanied by Communicative Language Teaching and Total Physical Response methods of teaching.
This principle was emphasised further by Professor Zeshan’s discussion of the iSLanDS philosophy that deaf people are best taught by other deaf people – a belief that is the result of years of research in many countries around the globe. There is much evidence that deaf people learn quickly and effectively when taught by other deaf people due to the natural bond that occurs among members of the same cultural group. This also falls in line with the developing principle in scholarly research, and among deaf communities, that ‘deaf people can’ learn and that there is an element of ‘deaf gain’ in employing deaf people as teachers of deaf learners.
There are relatively few qualified deaf teachers in China but private companies are increasingly bringing in deaf people to teach deaf employees, and this also indicates that Professor Zeshan’s philosophy of peer teaching is effective. A good example of this is seen in the company called Shanghai CSLized Culture Centre, which recruits deaf people who have a good command of English and sign language to teach other deaf people preparation skills for studying abroad. In fact, deaf entrepreneurship is developing steadily across China and is now making in-roads in the teaching of English and sign language, with deaf professionals teaching from a functional approach, rather than from a fixed curriculum of study.
This three-year project has been very successful. China has the advantage of having large numbers of deaf learners and excellent classroom interpreting services, whereas there are far less deaf students in the UK. To complement this, the UK has over 25 years of experience of teaching English and sign language to deaf and hard of hearing learners and has a good amount of learning materials to share. It is already evident that our Chinese partners certainly value learning from our experiences and are now developing their own resources. It would be a very pleasing outcome of this project to see more Chinese deaf people feel confident to study abroad, and perhaps even the establishment of a UCLan overseas campus for deaf students at ZIT in China! Our iSLanDS colleagues have already implemented courses in applied sign language teaching in several countries through their international hubs and our Chinese partners have expressed interest in a Master’s level course being set up by UCLan to teach deaf people to become teachers of Chinese Sign Language, Chinese or English, or to become postgraduate researchers.
It is of course important to provide at least a brief account of cultural experiences when describing a trip to a nation as culturally expressive as China. This trip was interwoven with many cultural tours and events. We were fortunate to see a plethora of deaf arts and crafts at a deaf art gallery, and to attend shows of traditional Chinese performance, such as Bian Lian (the secret changing of the mask), presented by a deaf performer, and the Lion Dance performed by a group of deaf school children. We also saw Chinese Sign Language poetry performed by a deaf poet. Chinese deaf culture made this trip an incredible experience that will be remembered by all for many years.
Some of the Chinese participants stated that their previous experiences of learning English had been unsuccessful because they relied on memorisation only and it was difficult to remember everything. After the deaf literacy workshop, the participants commented that learning through this functional approach, with the use of objects containing everyday English, was a much more effective way to learn.
A group of participants commented that they find long texts of English difficult to understand and they prefer shorter chunks of English, with pictures alongside to provide clues. Many people found the book ‘Deaf Life’, by Ian Funnell, good to read because of its visual content. However, they found the order form too lengthy in text and difficult to complete. The participants were happy to have help with how to take a short paragraph at a time, covering other paragraphs with paper to enable them to focus on one bit of information at time.
A few teachers commented that the workshops made them realise that deaf can achieve in learning English as a foreign language.
“It was so fantastic to see such famous sites as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City – places that I have seen many times in films and have now seen in person! The trip was really worth making because I felt totally immersed into sign language culture with such large numbers of people signing all the time. The workshops helped me to realise that learning English is a challenge and it is certainly more effective learning it through every day materials and through peer-to-peer discussions, especially given the variety of English skill among deaf people in China. I also liked the fact that there were deaf presenters, and the explanations of how English can be taught through sign language. The use of mobile phone technology was incredible to see, and is clearly essential in everyday life in China. The need to use English is increased with such technologies and may increase motivation and necessity to learn English in the near future.” – Nicola Nunn
“The use of sign language to explain how English works, and how to master specific grammatical aspects, was very effective, as it gave them a visual explanation to aid understanding.”
“There are not enough functional resources used in the teaching of English in China, and more resources are needed. The workshop improved their confidence to create materials by recording themselves translating from English to Chinese Sign language.”
“I was so grateful to have the opportunity to visit various places and to meet the students and especially meet deaf children there. It was amazing to be in a university lecture on Deaf History and to find over 500 deaf people attend the event; a truly great feeling to be surrounded by so many people the same as me!”
“It is wonderful to see sign language coming out from the underground and being taken seriously as a language of instruction in education. I hope that this leads eventually to higher expectations of deaf people, which will result in deaf children growing up with higher self-expectations and higher levels personal and academic achievement.”